Market Focus: Teen Titans

This just in, online media mavens: Teenagers occasionally spend time on the Internet. They play games, contribute to online communities, blog about topics both smart and silly, and grab every last nugget of information worth grabbing for school reports, future purchases, and more.

And yet many mainstream marketers still treat teens as if they're a lesser species of online denizen, rather than a group that boasts the sophistication of their 30-something predecessors. Remember, Generation Y has grown up with the Internet.

"Young people operate in this space on such an intuitive level," notes Dr. Pamela Kiecker, a professor of marketing who heads the Interactive Marketing Institute at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Business. "Teens aren't awed by the technical details, and marketers don't need to give them as many hand-holds as they do an older audience. The Internet is ... like electricity to them."

Adds Dave Howlett, co-founder and vice president of product management at online consultancy Umbria Communications, "[Teens] are always seeking novelty in anything. If a marketer tries to tell them that something is 'cool' or 'hot,' chances are it won't be perceived that way."

Making Mistakes

Thus, it's no surprise that some of the otherwise savviest marketers have found the online teen market a tough nut to crack. Some of the clumsy tactics they employ haven't helped much. Peter Shankman, president of public relations shop The Geek Factory, recalls an incident in which a marketer attempted to generate interest among older teens in a birth-control pill. The company hired a gaggle of minions and sent them into chat rooms to post a handful of brand messages, including one suggesting that users of the particular pill stopped gaining water weight. Not surprisingly, the audience saw right through the smokescreen.

"You want to post somewhere, your first post is never 'look at this great product!' It's 'I've been lurking for a while, I hope to contribute here at some point,' then maybe a month later you throw in the message," Shankman explains, adding, "But most marketers don't have a month to wait."

Another pivotal mistake made by companies hoping to reach teens is attempting to control the online experience. "[Teenagers] want to be in charge of what they do online. They don't want anybody to dictate terms to them," notes Ian Schafer, president and founder of Deep Focus, which has worked on online campaigns for HBO, America Online, and entertainment purveyors. The challenge for marketers, then, might be to figure out how to equip young people with the tools to create their own experiences.

Keeping It Real

So what can companies do to improve their relationships with skeptical teens? To a person, experts answer this question with a single word: communicate. Many propose hiring teenagers to give frank assessments of marketing efforts. "These kids are smart, man. They're much smarter than we were at their age," sighs Jim Banister, author of Word of Mouse: The New Age of Networked Media and CEO of digital media planner Spectrum MediaWorks.

A similarly honest approach tends to work with more-influential-than-anybody-could-possibly- have-imagined teen bloggers. "I don't know why more companies aren't trying to befriend them in a sincere way," Shankman adds. "The director of marketing at Revlon should be sending e-mails like, 'My name is so-and-so and I know you've posted about Revlon. I'd love to talk to you a bit and send you some free [stuff]. Test it out, tell me what you think.' What kid isn't going to want to be thought of as the kid with the connection to Revlon or Paper Denim jeans or whoever?"

Kiecker suggests that marketers reduce the number of gateways through which teens must pass to access content. Web site research she has conducted with kids 16 and under suggests that they're not especially concerned with privacy or security; they believe they're savvy enough to navigate around such problems. "They want wide-open space," Kiecker notes. What they don't want, which might come as a surprise to marketers whose online presence is slightly louder and more bombastic than a Michael Bay flick, are Flash-laden sites with bells and whistles to spare.

Speaking of content, marketers might attempt to create online, teen-leaning communities around specific hobbies or themes. A brand like Nike, for instance, could create a site for teen hikers with tips for beginners. Among the smartest examples of this approach is Fresh Films, an online filmmaking program for teens ( The program boasts considerable corporate muscle, including Frito-Lay's Doritos and Sony Music. But the brand messages take a back seat to contests and promotions involving aspiring teen filmmakers. "You won't see a movie where a teenager is crunching on Doritos the whole time," deadpans Fresh Films president Kelli Feigley.

The program restricts its product placement to where it makes sense, like makeup or apparel brands during the online casting calls. Fresh Films, which generated 120,000 unique visitors in May, according to Feigley, perhaps owes its success to its comparative distinctiveness from other online offerings  it's not merely another music or gaming or extreme-sports portal. Too, it positions itself as nothing more than a creative outlet and speaks to teens in an adult voice. "We're never going to be overly 'yo yo yo,'" Feigley cracks. "Teens can smell phoniness, you know?"

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