It’s easy to say “teens” but it’s a whole lot harder to pin down what it means. Sure, there’s the simple chronological definition (with a bit of blurring at either end) but being a teen means more than being between 13 and 19. Understanding a teen, as every parent of one knows, is an impossible task. Part of the challenge is that teens are at least as diverse as any other group, and the other part of it is that people change more physically and emotionally over the course of their teenage years than at any other time of their lives.
First, let’s look at the obvious. A 13-year-old Mormon girl living on a ranch in Wyoming and a 17-year-old boy whose family just moved to New Jersey from India probably aren’t going to have that much in common. So, as with any big and broad demographic group, teens need to be classified and categorized so they can be reached effectively. Knowing your audience isn’t rocket science but knowing your teenage audience is no small task.
Why? Because the teens they are a changin’ and here are three big areas of change:
Stuff they can’t control – Teenagers’ brains are developing like crazy. People used to assume most brain development was all wrapped up in the first few years of life but it turns out that isn’t the case. Scientists continue to make new discoveries that may (or may not) help adults make sense of teens.
Stuff they can control – Perhaps as a result of the whole brain thing, teens are also in the process of exploring and developing their identities. Kids want to try things on for size. Their ideas around things like music, fashion, friends, food and everything else can change in the blink of an eye. There are a million places kids can hang their hats and some seem determined to try every one of them from anarchopunk, to bronie to LGBTQ to nerdfighter. And even though the shift from being a jock to an emo kid can seem jarring from the outside, to the teen it is as natural as changing their shoes.
Stuff they think is cool/uncool – This is an offshoot of “stuff they can control” but its roots can be a little easier to understand. Trends in device adoption or app downloads can happen across all of the various teen identities out there. Goths, gamers, mods, cosplayers and k-pop fans are all going to gravitate to a fixed number of handsets, messaging apps and social platforms. What they do will differ but at least there’s a common infrastructure. Of course, what’s cool today can be totally uncool tomorrow, and if it’s uncool then teens will drop it like a bad habit.
So what, if anything, can a marketer do with this information?
When it comes to things teens can’t control you can factor in sleep cycles or hormonal changes but for the most part you’re not going to be able to do much than hang on tight and go along for the ride.
When it comes to things teens can control, you can pay attention to what matters to the kids that matter to your business. What’s great about teens is that they’re never shy about what they’re into so just listen to them. That way you won’t embarrass yourself by wading blindly between the sides of some fanboy flamewar.
When it comes to things teens think are cool, pay attention here, too. It’s not identity-level stuff (like Xbox vs. PlayStation) but it matters a lot. If teens decide that Vine is way cooler than Instagram for videos, you want to at least be at aware of the fact. Or if the growth of the teen audience on Facebook continues to slow you need to be figuring out where they’re moving. The same goes for uncool. You might end up shooting yourself in the foot if you try to jump onto the newest trend only to find that your target teens have already decided it’s totally lame.
On its face, none of this is that complicated. But what makes it difficult are the people at the center of all this attention: teens. They’re just not willing to play by an easy or predictable set of rules. And even if they were willing to, they’d change the rules on us anyway.