Commentary

Teen Relationships Go Virtual

In a world where almost everything is virtual, today even romantic relationships can be remote. According to a recent article in TheWall Street Journal, online relationships among teens are fast becoming the “new normal.” Where one or two generations ago, the norm was for teens to “go steady” with somebody at their school and enjoy activities together in person, today some teens are finding romantic partners 3,000 miles away, and never meeting them.

This micro-trend is shaped by several larger ones. Teens are increasingly starting puberty earlier, so they’re looking for romantic partners at a younger age. On the other hand, young adults are getting married later, creating a longer duration between puberty and marriage (on average, about 15 years) that has to be accommodated more creatively.

Through social media and video games like "Fortnite," teens are increasingly meeting people around the world who share similar niche interests. Fewer teens are getting a driver’s license or their own car, leaving them more housebound. And they’re increasingly eschewing risky real-world behaviors, making online relationships safer in some ways.

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The result is a number of teens who have a boyfriend or girlfriend whom they’ve never met and never get to see in person. Yet interactions with these boyfriends or girlfriends fill hours of each day, on FaceTime and Snap. The relationship can be just as monogamous, committed and deeply felt as one experienced in person -- and arguably, sometimes even more so, if it’s with somebody who shares all their niche hobbies, interests and tastes.

As more personal relationships move out of the real world and into the cloud, what should marketers do to evolve with their youngest customers?

*Enable remote co-viewing. In the old days, teen couples could go to a movie or watch TV together. Now, they’re consuming entertainment separately. They can always stream a Netflix show at the same time, but that’s not quite the same. A year ago, Facebook Watch announced its “Watch Party” feature, which allows users to watch a live or prerecorded video together and chat about it in real time. More streaming services should follow their lead, to allow remote friends, family and couples to enjoy the pleasures of co-viewing. (Disclosure: Facebook Watch is a past client.)

*Make gift-giving frictionless. If a virtual couple is celebrating a birthday, holiday or anniversary, it typically won’t be with a cake and a physical exchange of presents. Virtual gifts and ecommerce will be increasingly important when honoring these special days. E-tailers like Amazon must consider how to make a purchase for a remote recipient stand out as a gift, with beautiful packaging and wrapping, a personal note, and maybe even instructions on when and where to open it, without giving away what it might be. And games like "Fortnite" need to provide virtual goods that would make a suitable gift for a loved one.

*Provide a reason to meet up. Previously, couples didn’t need much excuse for a “date night.” Today, smart marketers are providing reasons for virtual friends and couples to meet up “IRL.” This summer, the New Yorker hotel hosted about 1,500 gamers at its Defend the North 2019 event, which encompassed 30 different video game tournaments. “Cons” (Conventions) like Comic-Con, VidCon and even DragCon attract tens of thousands of young people from across the US. And young adult personalities like author John Green have successfully cultivated rabid online fan communities who will turn out to see them in person. So look for ways to create online communities that bring people together, and occasionally offer them meet-ups that are truly not to be missed.

Don’t let your young consumers ghost you. Find ways to evolve your relationship from “IRL” to “everywhere.”
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