If you would have told me a decade ago that a show like “Pretty Little Liars” would be a hit among Generation Z, I would have told you that you were crazy. The ABC Family mystery-drama diverges from some of the most popular teen dramas of the aughts. It doesn’t have the glamour of “Gossip Girl,” and its grim storylines make the soapy “The O.C.” seem like a children’s show. But thanks to a significant social media footprint (14.5 million Facebook fans, 2.63 million Twitter followers and 2 million Instagram followers) and intense storytelling, “Pretty Little Liars” is getting teens to watch TV, ranking as the top cable TV show in its hour.
As a media research and customer intelligence professional, I find it striking how the teen-viewing landscape has evolved in the last 10 years. And marketers, not just those in the TV industry, need to pay attention. Here are three ways the viewing preferences of teens are changing and how they present a challenge to companies in all industries.
Realism Trumps Glamour
A decade ago, teens wanted to live vicariously through wealthy, glamorous characters on TV. These characters were almost exclusively heterosexual and white.
Today, teens want a more realistic and nuanced representation on the shows they watch. “Blackish,” which features an African-American family in a wealthy, predominantly Caucasian community, and “Modern Family,” an award-winning comedy that explores what it’s like to grow up in nontraditional families, both get high ratings among the 12 to 34 demo. Newcomer “Empire” is also a hit among young viewers, and just like teen favorites “Pretty Little Liars” and “Teen Wolf,” it has significant LGBT characters and storylines.
The popularity of these diverse shows reflects the reality of this audience’s world. Among other things, this phenomenon is driven by the emerging “majority minority” demographic. Teens are growing up surrounded by an increasingly diverse family and social circle. Companies need to make sure they are reflecting this reality in their marketing content. Marketers need to understand their increasingly diverse audience.
Some of the most popular shows among young viewers feature zombies (“The Walking Dead”), mythical kingdoms (“Game of Thrones”) and supernatural forces (“American Horror Story”). This trend is consistent with the film industry, where movies with serious themes, usually set in a dystopian setting, have been blockbuster hits among teens.
While the era of light and fluffy teen entertainment is gone, many companies still resort to music or to juvenile humour when marketing to teens. Brands need to figure out what’s driving the popularity of fantasy drama and dystopian themes among teens and adjust their approach accordingly. Do these violent shows reflect the deeper, unspoken fears of today’s teens? What are the needs that these programs address?
To answer these questions, companies need to forge relationships with their teen customers. A two-way conversation with teens — not just about their TV-viewing habits, but about all aspects of their lives — can expose unfulfilled needs that companies can address through their products or through their marketing activities.
Many TV shows now encourage viewers (and sometimes, their own cast) to tweet during their broadcast. The popularity of live-tweeting has been a boon for social media-savvy shows like “Pretty Little Liars” and “Empire.” Live-tweeting, by creating urgency for teen viewers to participate, transforms TV show-watching into an event and boosts live broadcast ratings. It also puts the pressure on writers to craft more tweet-worthy storylines to drive social media buzz.
The rise of live tweeting speaks to the growing appetite people have for online conversations. Online discussions between fans build a community around shows, making viewers more invested in what they’re watching.
Fostering virtual communities isn’t only applicable to the TV industry. Companies need to find a way to engage with their community of customers on a regular basis. Enabling conversations among customers — and engaging directly with customers — is an effective way of doing so.
Socio-economic factors will continue to shape the viewing habits and preferences of young people. More than ever, companies need to be persistent in engaging teens in an ongoing conversation. Only in doing so can marketers get relevant and timely insight on what teen customers and viewers are looking for, and use that knowledge to drive better business decisions.