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How brands can engage teens online

Brands are becoming quite good at connecting with adult fans online. Most know the best ways to entice fans into ‘liking’ them on Facebook or replying to them on Twitter. Targeting a teen audience, however, is a whole different challenge. An audience of teens makes for a more volatile, less predictable community. Trends that take months to play out in an adult world can come and go in days. Teens aren’t just slightly shorter adults – they’re a whole different market and should be treated as such. Teens may seem impossible to engage, but it can be done if the brand follows some basic principles (if you’d like to know more, do watch this video seminar on teenagers and social media that includes presentations from Paul LaFontaine from Sulake (Habbo Hotel), Dr Barbie Clarke, founder of Family Kids and Youth and eModeration's own Tia Fisher).

Create an authentic voice which is genuine, non-corporate and human sounding (after all, you’re not trying to engage shareholders here – it’s all about the teens). The voice needs to be true and sustainable (teens can spot a faker a mile off and there’s nothing less engaging than being patronised). Brands that succeed in crafting a voice that is in touch with this audience – who know what they want but don’t try to ‘get down with the kids’ and look foolish – can foster a genuine connection with teens. And you can use this voice to engage with your market rather more frequently than you would do with adults. Teens only go offline when forced to do so, and it’s all about ‘social’.  You can become part of their ongoing dialogues with the world.

Be authentic. Teens are smart. They understand that adults make promises and break them, and that on occasion they lie. But this means that they’re also often unforgiving. Brands that lie, or break promises to their teen audience will have a lot of explaining to do. A teen who’s saved up pocket money for months to afford the latest must-have computer game isn’t going to appreciate a three month production delay. If you mess up, apologise and explain what happened. Yes, you might get a certain level of stick for your mistake, but fans will really appreciate being able to know what went wrong and what you’re doing to fix it.

Most importantly, don’t pretend to be something that you’re not. You need to be interested in  them and their interests – but don’t try to pretend you *are* a teen. That’s either creepy, embarrassing or just plain unsuccessful – your audience will sniff you out, know that you don’t understand or care what they want, and will not engage.

Dialogue not monologue. It’s not about the brand. About how wonderful the brand is or what fantastic things it’s doing. It should be about the teens and what the brand can do for them. Publishing a stream of tweets advertising the awesomeness of the brand won’t do anything to achieve that. Creating conversations, or even jumping into existing conversations between fans, is a much more effective way to build a relationship with a teen audience. Asking fans for advice, what their favourite lines are in your clothes shops, or what items they’d like to see in their virtual world, are all ways to prove to your teen audience how much your brand values them. It’s always better to do than to say. If they like your brand, they’ll be happy that you’re consulting them and have taken the time to talk to them.

Mob mentality is something that brands targeting teens have to deal with every day. It’s not going to make headline news if I say that teens can, at times, be a bit on the sensitive side, and that friends have their rivalries and alliances which often spill over from the offline to the online world. Even teens who have only ‘met’ online can quickly form factions and start verbally hacking away at each other via your brand’s community. You’ll often see a mob mentality build up around a fight between a few people (almost like a playground where everyone gathered round screaming “Fight!” “Fight!” “Fight!”). What’s important is that you don’t get in the middle of this mess.

Of course, such disputes should be moderated – if community members break house rules they should be penalised – but don’t take sides in the dispute. Equally, don’t create one by asking hot button questions. Posting “The Hunger Games makes Harry Potter look like Sesame Street – discuss” or “Who do you prefer, Edward or Jacob?” might get discussion going on your Facebook page, but these questions are just as likely to create an argument which the brand runs the risk of having to referee. Whatever happens some of your fans are going to be alienated. Set clear boundaries. If you say that a type of behaviour isn’t acceptable, don’t accept it. But be consistent: nothing will outrage a teen more than inconsistent or unfair behaviour.

Research the teen market thoroughly. As I’ve mentioned, teens can detect a faker a mile off. They are the biggest sceptics in the world. The teen market is unique: trends and fashions can be in one second and out the next, while in the adult world these trends tend to change over longer periods of time. Brands targeting the teen market need to stay on top of what’s cool and what isn’t – and they need to know why it’s cool. Otherwise they’ll only have half the story – they won’t understand their audience at all.

Lastly, brands need to develop a thick skin. It’s not uncommon for teens to become enraged with a brand for one reason or another. Maybe the brand has pushed back the date of a game they’re desperate to have, or banned a user from the site for trolling. Or perhaps the brand made the mistake of insulting Team Edward. Whatever the reason, teens will often explode with rage at the injustice of it all. But they’re as likely to move on quickly, and want to return to business as usual. Ultimately, if you’re dealing with teens you have to know how they behave, and prove that you understand why – even if you don’t approve of how they express themselves from time to time.

Teens are probably even more social media savvy than adults , because they have grown up using social media. It’s in their DNA. They’re intelligent, quick-thinking multitaskers who just don’t want to buy what you’re selling. They want a genuine experience, they want to be heard and recognised by the brand. They want to be famous and anonymous at the same time and they want you to leave them alone, while not ignoring them. It’s enough to give most marketers a headache. To succeed in engaging teens, brands need to know their audience, not make promises they can’t keep, own up when they make a mistake, and, as in the real world, provide boundaries.

Tamara Littleton founded Emoderation in 2002 to share her passion for all things digital. From the early days of online forum moderation to the explosion of Facebook and Twitter, Tamara has used her experience and expertise to help develop best...

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