Radically Connected Kids

Think of them as the sweetest spot in Gen Y, and the biggest part of the population bubble.  Why are they so hard to find? 

They were born in 1993 and 1994 -- during Clinton’s first term -- and they’re just now coming of age. These 18- and 19-year-olds are your new demographic. And you can’t reach them. Yet.

They’re freshmen and sophomores in college. They only use email to communicate with their professors.

They laugh when asked if they have a cable provider. They’d rather text their parents than talk to them on the phone. They don’t even know how to get a landline installed. And they wouldn’t want one, anyway.

They don’t listen to the radio.

They stream their TV online.

Meet MediaPost summer intern Danielle Gluck. She’s 19, a rising sophomore at Lehigh University who takes two days to respond to an email (unless she gets a text telling her to check). “Over the summer I’ll usually only communicate through text,” she says, “but in school I talk to all my professors through email; during school I’m as reachable through email, especially since email comes to my phone.”

“The trend for email use in younger age segments is declining rapidly, and we attribute that to a shift to Facebook, texting,” says Andrew Lipsman, VP, industry analysis at comScore.

But he isn’t worried that this generation will sound a death knell for email. “Is this the end of email long term? No. Right now,” he continues, “this age group’s lifestyles afford them the luxury of not using email. That will change when they enter the work world and are reintroduced to it.”

A 2010 eMarketer study found that 43 percent of 18-24 year-old find texting as meaningful as an actual phone conversation. Gluck is part of that 43 percent, even when it comes to communicating with her parents in New Jersey. “Usually I’ll text them, and if I want to have an extended conversation, I’ll text them a good time when we can talk.”

The bottom line is that this group wants meaningful connection that is also convenient across all platforms.

Mike Sepso, chairman and cofounder of Major League Gaming, a decade-old electronic gaming company that targets what they call “digital natives,” thinks the 18- and 19-year-olds aren’t much different than the upper part of their demographic.

“The interesting thing is that group sort of spans an interesting digital divide a bit, and the lower range was literally born post Internet,” he says. “All of them kind of came into being media consumers within a six year span so it’s not too far apart. There is a difference in 21-24 year-olds, but the reality is that those differences erode quickly. If anything, the differences are more content oriented than manner of consumption.” 

Sepso notes that this demographic are heavy consumers of online video — more so than any other group. They’ve also never consumed media through traditional channels.

“They are much heavier online video consumers – particularly YouTube. Online video consumption skews heavily to the male side of the 18-24 demographic” Lipsman says.

18 year olds chartNew York City-based marketing collaborative, MRY, formerly known as  Mr. Youth, recently released a comprehensive study entitled “5 Ways to Friend the Class of 2015,” surveying 5,000 incoming college freshman about their media consumption, as well as their feelings on brand marketing. The results point to some shocking realities about this generation, namely their values.

Their values have been heavily shaped by the climate in which they grew up. This group has always known a chaotic world. They were seven years old on 9/11, have seen natural disasters destroy communities and witnessed a financial meltdown that probably impacted them directly. As a result, they strongly believe in giving back to their community, are environmentally-conscious, and welcome racial and cultural diversity.

On the upside, they grew up with Facebook and watched an average college kid nurture it into a multi-billion-dollar company. They truly care about marriage equality (they think it’s a good thing, obviously), and they make efforts to appreciate the things they have – family, a home, friends.

“Their goals,” the study says “are different from Millennials and they are not a generation of ‘haters,’ nor are they anti-establishment. They see the value in discipline and rules, and view their parents as their most important role models.”

Marketers should heed the study’s rebuff of “haters” which can be translated into a need for marketing transparency. These kids are smarter than the rest of Gen Y – don’t lie to them, and don’t try to push on them a product that they may not need or even want. To reach them is to create a conversation where they live: online.

“You have to understand that the characteristics of online work communities facilitate a much quicker spread of word of mouth marketing than existed in a traditional world where brands really had to use media and PR efforts to drive word of mouth,” says Sepso. “Now it happens primarily through social media and network communities.”

Leah Bell, president of UQ Marketing, is more optimistic about the power of word-of- mouth offline. “There’s no denying the popularity of texting and social media among college students,” she says. “However, students begin to develop their long-term purchasing habits based on recommendations from their peers.”

She and Sepso agree, though, about brands’ needs to infiltrate young consumers’ daily lives. “Brands need to interject themselves into these real-world conversations,” says Bell.

That’s surprisingly difficult, consider how very connected these young adults are: 80 percent use two or more devices while watching TV, 76 percent spend at least an hour on Facebook everyday, and 59 percent even go on Facebook during class.

The huge obstacle for marketers trying to reach consumers through disruptive channels like Facebook and Reddit is creating authentic content and experiences. The only way to accomplish this is through transparency and respect.

Back to the MRY study. The company found that this class really has no problem sharing intimate details of their lives – sexual orientation, relationship status, personal photos – but they aren’t keen on talking about the things they buy, where they’re located or their home addresses. Though inverting the idea of public and private life, this discrepancy makes sense. This group is, after all, concerned with meaningful connections. How could they bond more effectively over a pair of sneakers than photos of shared experiences?

Marketers – it’s your job to make them bond over a pair of sneakers just like they would over party pictures. And you can.

Taking your message to Reddit is a good way to foster an authentic experience for potential consumers. Should you go to a subReddit and start giving away free stuff? No.

“That’s the exact opposite of what you should do,” says Sepso, whose company is an active member of the popular gaming community on Reddit. “One of the reasons Reddit is so successful at managing authenticity is because the active members have a lot of power to up or down vote individual post. That means someone who isn’t a member has a real difficult time coming in and pushing information.”

Authenticity is also a powerful tool for garnering Facebook-likes for a brand. Simply put: a successful brand page has many followers, contains wall posts that align with the user’s views, and generates meaningful content. But don’t fool yourself by assuming that a Facebook connection is necessarily meaningful. The MRY study reported that while 50 percent of these kids have 300 or more “friends,” on Facebook, 73 percent say they need to spend time with them in person before considering them real friends. 

This generation isn’t impossible to reach, but doing so is difficult because they are resistant to traditional media devices and messages.

Why should you care, anyway? Perhaps Lipsman sums it up best. “Sure, they may not have a lot of purchasing power now, but they will be powerful in the future. Their habits are different than other demographics and marketers need to be aware of this.”

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