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What a Teen Consumer Wants

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At the Interactive Advertising World show in New York a few weeks ago, I attended a panel entitled “Tomorrow’s Market on Today’s Internet: The Interactive Advertising World Teen Focus Group.” Moderated by North Castle Partners, the panel featured sixteen teenagers sharing their perspectives on marketing, privacy and their relationships with brands. I attended a similar panel moderated by Parry Aftab at the IAPP/TRUSTe conference back in June where a Teenangels panel shared many of the same sentiments. Both panels provided some of the most interesting and insightful discussions of their respective conferences. Several attendees were left with mouths wide open after hearing what the kids had to say. Given that teens are increasingly subject to marketing outreach programs, I thought it might be helpful to share some of my takeaways from these panels. 


Data Collection: Many panelists admitted that they straight out lie when companies ask them for personal information. Some were willing to provide limited information to trusted companies, but most were uncomfortable with the idea of sharing information. They generally feel that companies will not be responsible with their personal information and are likely to bombard them with ads. If required to provide an email address in order to receive access to a site, more often then not they’ll setup a dummy Hotmail or Yahoo! account that they only use to receive passwords.


Frustration with Ads: Just about every panelist complained that the online ads they’re exposed to have no bearing on their interests. Many complained about getting ads for porn sites. I suspect that part of the problem is that teens tend to visit very small niche sites, some of which barely eke out a living by serving whatever kinds of pop-up ads that they can. For example, a teen that visits a game cheat site will sometimes inadvertently download a spyware program as well. And the next thing you know the teen is getting pop-ups for porn sites. The bottom line for the panelists is that ads are generally something that they endure -- but only when absolutely necessary.


Similarly, most felt that online ads were entirely ineffective. Although there was some interest around playing branded games (a.k.a. online advergames), one panelist commented that “playing with a Life Savers game isn’t going to make me feel like having a Life Saver.” Many of the panelists liked an interactive toy that allowed them to create a cyber bouquet of flowers and then send it to a friend. Unfortunately, not one of the panelists knew what HP -- Hewlett Packard, the sponsor of the ad -- stood for.


Multi-tasking: The panelists all use multiple media at the same time. Web surfing, TV watching, emailing, music listening, Instant Messaging and homework are taking place concurrently. It’s absolutely amazing. No wonder the teens don’t want to see ads. With all the other stuff they’re doing online, how can they possibly have the time?


Control: There is strong desire on the part of the panelists to control their marketing experience with companies. For example, the panelists are approaching college age; many complained of feeling bombarded by information from schools. Their overwhelming preference is to do their own research on schools, and to reach out to a handful of schools once they’ve narrowed the field on their own. Their target group of schools could then send them information via a pre-approved marketing channel (i.e., email, snail mail, phone), but schools that are too aggressive in their marketing outreach find themselves struck from further consideration.


Viral Marketing: Generally speaking, the panelists did not believe that viral marketing was effective. Many were concerned that companies would steal their friend’s emails if they used a "forward to a friend" feature in a marketing email. Many were also concerned about cluttering up their friend’s inboxes, and some specifically expressed a reluctance to waste their friends’ time by forwarding jokes and other stuff. Some of the panelists enjoyed telling friends about cool or useful products, but none seemed to embrace the concept as viral marketing.


I don’t know about you, but some of what I heard from the panelists was eye opening. If these panels are representative of teen sentiment throughout the U.S., then many of us in the online marketing world may want to reexamine our approach.


I had the pleasure of speaking with Parry Aftab, executive director of WiredSafety.org, and founder of the Teenangels panel. I also spoke with Jim Davis, president of North Castle Nextstep. Both have some serious concerns with the ways that digital marketers market to teens. According to Aftab, marketers tend to approach teens in one of two ways. “Either they treat teens as kids, in that they should do what they’re told, or they treat them like smaller versions of adults, in that they assume kids have the same values as adults,” says Aftab. “Neither approach works with teens.”


Davis has a similar point of view. “There is a big disconnect between what marketers think is effective and what teens think is appropriate,” says Davis. “Marketers have a perception of the way teens use the Internet that is flawed. They think that teens have all the time in the world and that if marketers spray ads at them, that they will annoy their way into teen’s consciousness.” Davis says this approach is partly responsible for the lack of trust teens exhibit towards many brands.


The Billion Dollar Question… literally


Will there be a very different consumer ten or twenty years from now? In other words, as they get older are teens likely to shed these perceptions of marketing, privacy and trust like so many other teenage ideals, or will we see a dramatically different type of consumer as they transition into adulthood and middle age? I know from my own experiences that many of the closely held beliefs I had at 17 changed as I matured. On the other hand, I also know that I view the world much differently than my parents.


Perhaps today's teens do represent a new type of consumer. According to Aftab, kids have so much more information at their disposal these days. “When I was growing up, my spending was in many ways dependant on my parents dropping me off at the mall and giving me a few bucks to spend,” says Aftab. “Today, the kids have so much more access to information to research their purchases. When they want something, they can figure out with whom they need to speak, or where to find the information.”


That is a very different mindset from my own days as a teen, when my search for information began and ended at my local library.


So will these attitudes continue as teens grow up into adulthood? According to Davis, “That has as much to do with marketers as it does with the kids. If digital marketers use good judgment then they have a shot at winning the trust of these consumers. However, if we as an industry don’t exercise good judgment, then we will likely reap what we sow.” Aftab offers a similar opinion, noting that once a company violates the trust of a teen consumer -- or doesn’t listen to them -- they will never get their trust or their attention back. “The record industry will never again be the same because they lost the kids,” says Aftab.


Do you agree? Disagree? If you have any thoughts in this area, please drop me a line


Alan Chapell is a consultant focusing on privacy marketing -- helping companies understand privacy and incorporate consumer perception into product development. He has been in the interactive space for more than seven years with firms such as Jupiter Research, DoubleClick and Cheetahmail. Chapell is the New York chapter chairman of the International Association of Privacy Professionals, and he publishes a daily blog on issues of consumer privacy.

You know you're a digital marketer if you're pretty sure SXSW peaked in 2007.


As you know, all able-bodied digital marketers are called upon to make a pilgrimage to Austin each spring to receive a headful of digital innovation/inspiration and a bellyful of smoked brisket. But this annual ritual is also accompanied by obligatory blog-based belly-aching (at least partly brisket-induced, one has to believe) about how "South-by" just ain't what it used to be – it's now too corporate, too unfocused, or contains too many fauxhawks.


This is due, in part, to the fact that 2007 is to SXSW what 1977 is to punk -- the annus mirabilis that changed everything that came after. Twitter was announced at the 2007 show, and there hasn't been a watershed of that magnitude since. (But that might actually be true of digital marketing rather than SXSW specifically.) So if you were there in '07, you have a certain glimmer to your digital marketing star that the rest of us lack. And to all you whippersnappers who hadn't even graduated in 2007 but are nonetheless driving the industry forward at SXSW and everywhere else -- well, you just shoulda been there, man. You shoulda been there.

You know you're a digital marketer if you secretly can't understand who wouldn't want targeted ads.


OK, admit it. You've pondered with requisite sobriety and chin-stroking the legitimate privacy concerns raised in the debate over tracking cookies and big data, but in your dark little marketer heart, you don't really understand why anyone wouldn't want ads to be more relevant to them. When I leaf through the quaintly rustling pages of my beloved New Yorker (OK, I'm lying, I read it on my iPad), and I see ads "targeting" me with a Patek Philippe diving watch, it is of no surprise to me that print ad revenues are plunging like a Patek Philippe strapped to an anchor. I'm sure I will be buying a quarter-million dollar watch right after I splurge on a rug to replace the one that the dog keeps peeing on.


No, I say, give me a digital publication that knows me, where I can still be targeted with Jeep ads two years after buying the damn Jeep. (Wait, no, bad example.) The point is, I like it when Gmail reads a reference in my email to "The Five Dysfunctions of a Team" and then targets me with Viagra ads. (Wait, no, also bad.)


Maybe the point is that we've got some work to do in making ad targeting more refined, elegant, and relevant, and then everyone will think it's as cool as we do.

You know you're a digital marketer when everything has a "long tail."


If digital marketing had a mascot (and why don't we, by the way?), it would have to be the lemur, distinguished for the length of its tail (and the wetness of its nose, but I'm not sure that's relevant here). The long tail is the digital marketer's friend not only because it sounds impressive and looks cool in an infographic, but also because it pretty accurately describes a lot of what we do.


Chris Anderson popularized the metaphor in his eponymous 2004 book, and digital marketers have been invoking it ever since. As you no doubt know, since iMedia alone has published 541 articles containing the term, the long tail refers to the statistical distribution of a whole lot of small-scale activity as opposed to one big heap of activity, or in our case, the ability to micro-target specific interests instead of aiming for the mass market.


We're fond of telling each other there's gold in the long tail, and it is here that the elegance of the metaphor begins to break down, since tails do not typically contain gold, but rather burrs, fleas, and matted hair. Still, if you've used the term in the last month to describe your search strategy, your online merchandising, or the persistent recurrence of that Space Nazi movie in your Netflix recommendations, then congratulations -- you're one of us.

You know you're a digital marketer when you'd rather read an infographic.


I was going to go all meta on you and replace this section with an infographic about the popularity of infographics, but it turns out that some clever and more visually gifted people beat me to it. So I will instead tout their work here and here. Digital marketers especially love infographics because we tend to drink a little more deeply from the firehose of big data, and we need ways to convey said data to colleagues who prefer the drip hose.


We are living in the grand age of visualization, and while some might complain that spinning complex ideas into colorful confectionaries in a candy-store window frame is a way of substituting fluff for substance, I say we are none the worse for it. In fact, I lay down the challenge (and it should be noted that no challenge I have laid in my articles has ever been taken up) for someone to jump on the bandwagon of those "Year of [Insert Jackass Idea Here]" books and spend a year getting 100 percent of their new media content from infographics. I submit that this brave soul would emerge better informed, more expressive, and 20 pounds heavier, because damned if those infographics don't look like snack food labels. Or maybe that's just me.

You know you're a digital marketer when you've blogged or tweeted somebody else's social media fail.


I've written before about the digital marketer's passion for social media schadenfreude -- taking pleasure in the social media mishaps of others -- but I had to include it here because it remains one of our most enduring traits. As enduring as the mishaps themselves. It might, in fact, be our all-time favorite topic. Don't believe me? Go take a quick gander at the last couple dozen posts in iMedia's social media article section. Go ahead, I'll wait.


I know, right? We can't help ourselves. I happen to think it's not cruel though. We tell each other these spooky stories in order to teach object lessons, in the same way the Brothers Grimm were warning little German children not to take candy from witches, thereby ending the Candy-Wielding Witch Epidemic of the early 19th century. Ounce of prevention, folks.


And while I'm on the subject, let me give credit where credit is overdue. The digital marketers who manage social channels live on the lonely, windswept frontier of the digital experience, buffeted by unfiltered customer feedback, the vagaries of new technology, and the occasional request for a PPT to show upper management how social media is being "monetized." If they need to engage in a little schadenfreude to get through the day, I say, "OMG, did you hear about Amy's Bakery? Epic fail."


You know you're a digital marketer when television ads seem quaint.


Thanks to the magic of Netflix streaming, HBO Go, and cable on demand, I can go a long time without ever seeing a TV ad -- or as we digital marketers like to call them, "pre-roll." When I do spot one, it has the alluring strangeness of a dog walking on its hind legs.


Our TV ad diet has become so lean that we actually grow nostalgic and seek them out. We visit YouTube for a glimpse of yesteryear in much the same way that tourists flock to Pennsylvania Amish Country. I'm exaggerating of course; TV ads are not nearly as interesting as Amish Country. Except in the, ahem, long tail: The best ads become YouTube sensations, which in turn drives creative agencies to produce more sensational ads. So let's take a moment to savor the irony that the medium's decline is also driving its best work. And then move on, cuz we work in digital.


You know you're a digital marketer when you totally had that idea that somebody just paid $1 billion for.


The blessing and the curse of digital marketing is that we're never more than one degree removed from some of the biggest areas of innovation -- which is to say, the biggest piles of coin -- in contemporary culture. Having a front-row seat is fun, but it's not nearly as fun as being in the parade.


To make matters worse, there seems to be some grade inflation going on here in Dotcom Spending Spree 2.0. Why, I remember back in my day, when you actually had to make more money than you were losing to be worth $1 billion. Kids today. I'm tellin' ya.


So sidle up to the bar and tell me, one digital marketer to another, about the big ones that got away. Tell me about how you had an idea for microblogging back in 2006, how you half-drafted a business plan for a photo-sharing app, and how one of your kids once bit the other one's finger in a particularly hilarious way, if only you'd gotten it on video. Hey, I believe you. I've been there. I actually had the idea for Yahoo! several minutes before Jerry Yang did. (I was going to call it "Tarnation!" But same premise.) I should be writing billion-dollar checks. But we persevere. Courage and strength, my digital brethren, and may we meet again at The Next Big IPO.


Eric Anderson is VP of marketing at People to People Ambassador Programs.


On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.


"Sticky memo notes" image via Shutterstock.

Chapell & Associates is headed by Alan Chapell. In 1997, Chapell founded the privacy program at Jupiter Research, an internet research firm focusing on the consumer internet economy. During his four and a half years at Jupiter, Chapell also...

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