Commentary

Youth Speaks: If u dk what this is, gl

If mastering consumer behavior means financial prosperity in the digital age, then marketers and media companies may need to learn a new language.

A new report from the Pew Internet & American Life Project underscores the pervasive language and symbol shorthand that binds younger consumers' text messages, blogs and social networking. No longer the stuff of humorous cell phone commercials, the new lexicon is spilling over into teens' formal written schoolwork and verbal conversations. This new electronic communication is a radical shift--and product and service marketers must adjust if they want to connect to hip multitasking youth.

Most surprising: the majority of teens surveyed by Pew said they do not consider their self-styled manner of texting on ubiquitous devices--from cell phones to computers--the same as formal physical "writing" in school.

The College Board's National Commission on Writing (which co-sponsored the study) contends that educators routinely find written school assignments peppered with incomplete phrases, text-message abbreviations like LOL (lots of laughs), and "emoticons" such as happy face symbols. It's no wonder that Library of Congress librarian James Billington recently lamented that the Internet has inflicted a potentially fatal blow to "the basic unit of human thought...the sentence."

The far-reaching implications go well beyond selling goods and services to the younger crowd. A recent Forrester Research report on global enterprise Web 2.0 identifies the major tech pathways, such as blogs and social networks, on which companies will spend $764 million this year to connect with consumers and their employees. That will grow at a compound annual rate of 43% over the next five years, representing an additional $3.8 billion in spending, fueled by detailed engagement metrics.

In particular, consumers ages 12 to 17 are "avid users of social technologies, with one-third of these users engaged as content creators," Forrester notes. So the success of companies' digital marketing efforts will hinge on their ability to effectively communicate with interactive consumers who are creating their own ecosystem.

And that's only the beginning. Concerns about financial literacy among the masses in the wake of the credit and housing crisis can only be exacerbated by generations of young spenders weaned on an Internet-bred instant gratification, a short attention span and their own brand of shorthand communications. Blogging and social networking create strong peer groups in which buying recommendations and grassroots intelligence rule. It is the rich platform from which a powerful online service such as Wikipedia was created.

Much to the dismay of educators, students routinely cite Wikipedia as an accepted secondary information source, although it is an inconsistent, randomly assembled reference by self-ascribed experts. It has a place, although not in the footnotes of a school research paper.

That's what happens when users make up the rules as they go, whether it's language or fact-finding. The social networks in which they move en masse will be engines for this and much more fundamental change to which advertisers, media masters and educators must respond--even as they struggle to monetize Facebook and MySpace.

Of the 700 teens ages 12 to 17 surveyed by Pew, 85% said they engage in some form of electronic personal communications, including text messaging, sending emails and instant messages, blogging and posting comments on social networking sites. Sixty percent of those teens said they do not consider any such electronic texting to be the same as "writing," yet 50% said they use many of the same text abbreviations and emoticons in their written school assignments and even in spoken conversations. Indeed, a parent hasn't lived until their university student texts them, "need 2 get a new cell bec my bf broke it and idk how to fix or call u... jk. lol. luv u mom."

That multichannel teens "are super communicators, but not super writers" even has teens concerned. A majority surveyed say they recognize the need for good writing skills in order to be successful, and insist schools need to do more to help in that regard.

Perhaps the only solace is that older consumers are not far behind in their routine use of digital technology. More than 40% of the women online are mothers of children under the age of 18, and they also heavily rely on the Web for cybersocializing, information and peer recommendations on everything from purchases to dealing with tech-savvy teens. The mom who received the cell phone request from her teenager away at school has adopted her own texting tactics. She replied, "brb..go ask u dad. LOL."

Next story loading loading..