As always, my one-girl traveling research panel gives me as much insight as reams of data. As she came out of her anesthetic stupor at the oral surgeon last week (four wisdom teeth lighter, my daughter's first move was to grab my iPhone. Her mouth was filled with cotton bales, so her reflex was to use the phone to text us. But instead of calling up the notepad app, she defaulted to the thing she knew best: the SMS interface. She typed out: "Do I look like a chipmunk?" Her chief concern was how she would appear back at school in a few days.
"Oh no, honey," her mother and I reassured her. "You look fine."
"Well, yeah, kinda," I then blurted. Okay, maybe not the most sensitive parental response, but she did bear a striking resemblance to Secret Squirrel.
You get to the point where you can see "DAAAAD! JEEZ!" spoken through your child's exasperated eyes -- even when she can't talk.
There is an anecdotal point to this, of course. Even under heavy narcotics, a 16-year-old's first instinct now is to use the phone. More than that was the fact that she wasn't using the SMS app to send a text message, but simply as a quick and easy keypad for showing us what she wants. I have to say that as geeky, tech-savvy Dad I was wondering why she didn't pop up the much more attractive notepad instead. But as usual, I just didn't get it. In her mind, SMS was the tool at hand -- and she made the most of it.
This basic point is borne out by the comScore data on teen phone activities. While we assume that the youngest segments are the most adventurous and advanced in their use of mobile, in fact they are constrained by technology and habit. In the 13-17 segment, 68.8% are on a family plan or have someone else responsible for the bills. This group indexes very high for downloading songs directly to phones and accessing comics or humor, uploading photos to sites and making their own ringtones and phonecam video.
Probably because of their reliance on family plans, however, these kids work with middle-of-the-road devices. The aging Motorola RAZR models are the most popular in this group, and only 5% have smartphones. Less than a third of teens even use a 3G network.
I know from watching my own Secret Squirrel that some of the more dazzling features like mobile TV or cool iPhone Web apps and downloadable apps fail to impress her. When I showed her a device with the MediaFLO TV receiver, the first thing she asked was, what would happen when a text message comes in? The teen group uses text messaging much more often than the overall mobile population (73% vs. 52%), but when it comes to accessing email by phone, they are at parity with everyone else (13%).
On the one hand, this speaks to the way email is becoming a medium for adult and middle-aged users, while SMS is the preferred mode for youth. But it also underscores the sheer focus these young users have on the task at hand. As they become the 20- and 30-somethings and get better phones, will they grow into the mobile usage patterns of older demos -- or will they bring with them a priority for socializing and media sharing rather than media consumption? If the former proves to be true, then other comScore data suggests marketers may have trouble chasing and catching this demo on phones.
This is a very task-oriented group, it seems, and they have specific uses in mind for their devices. The Web browsing and video viewing is cool and all, but it only detracts from the phone's main, low-tech utility: connecting with one another. They index very high for accessing humor via a mobile browser and a bit higher for entertainment news. All the media-making and -sharing features run off the chart with them. But generally, they are indexing lower on all other content types, even search. They barely break the averages for movie information and horoscopes. For marketers this means a narrow range of opportunities to grab their attention on the mobile Web. No doubt some of these media consumption habits will mature as they age, but how much so, if they already embrace the device most as a social tool?
And even if marketers do capture this young demo's attention, their responsiveness to mobile advertising may be underwhelming. In this group, 6% said they had responded to a poll or contest via SMS in the previous month, compared to a 4.5% overall response rate. But less than average (1.6% vs. 2.4%) responded to an SMS ad, and 1.5% vs. 2.0% responded to an SMS prompt in other ad media.
If the next generation of mobilistas spend more of their time media making and sharing than they do consuming, we may be chasing them into all of the nooks and crannies where marketing messages are least effective. Catch them if you can.