Kids today. A lot has changed since Cabbage Patch Kids were must-have collectible toys and parents battled over the last Tickle Me Elmo. Today's young consumers are tech-savvy multitaskers; no static toy can keep their attention for long. As the first generation of true digital natives, they naturally take to interactive technologies and rich digital experiences to stay entertained and engaged.
But while their attention spans might be shorter, their spending power is more significant than ever. Youth audiences are a lucrative consumer group, and for brands to be successful, they must adapt their marketing strategies to fit the needs of modern young people who access their media primarily via the internet and mobile devices.
Young consumers are connecting with the brands that are most transparent in social and mobile platforms -- young adults, teens, and now even kids under 12 years old are rarely far from a smartphone, tablet, or laptop. Fuel calls this group "Generation Play" -- 6- to 24-year-olds who have grown up as digital natives, surrounded by smartphones and tablets, heavy users of social media and accustomed to one-click access to media. This generation is ahead of the curve on emerging experiences and technology and is heavily versed in the "mocial" lifestyle, where the social and mobile convergence is changing the landscape of media usage in an incredible way.
On the flip side, at the mercy of such media and technology inundation, members of Generation Play are more difficult to engage. They're notoriously distracted, which means they take in more, but go deeper on less. They are less inclined to interact with brands the way their loyalty-motivated parents are, and they are more heavily influenced by peers. Generation Play demands rewards and instant gratification -- so, how do successful brands keep the attention of those with a short attention span?
A decade ago, youth brands were just getting into gaming. Now, gamification elements exist everywhere around us -- from online games to marketing, to mobile devices and social media. According to Gartner's most recent "Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies" trends report, both virtual worlds and media tablets continue to grow in popularity among consumers.
The most effective brand resonance begins with reaching consumers at an early age, in order to establish and nurture a relationship. Virtual worlds such as Club Penguin and McDonald's Europe's Happy Studio offer safe online environments for kids that are rich and entertaining enough to encourage kids to spend longer periods of time engaging with them, but do not intrude on the experience with too much branding. Specifically, kids playing Happy Studio are subtly exposed to many of the licensed characters they get in their Happy Meals, tapping into their emotional attachments to the physical characters they have grown to love from TV and movies. As a bonus to parents, these properties also include elements to enhance learning and socialization skills, relying on a kid-friendly rewards system to motivate users to strive to achieve.
The intersection of gamification and branding has become more prevalent in social and mobile channels as well. For instance, Foursquare users play for the satisfaction of becoming the "mayor" of their favorite real-life places and sharing that achievement via social media, but at the same time they are driving traffic to their favorite stores and restaurants.
Given that according to the Pew Research Center, 66 percent of young adults own smartphones, many popular youth brands are taking advantage of that growing market by incentivizing consumers into their stores with loyalty programs for customers who return and check in, such as coupons and exclusive in-app badges. Last year, 7-Eleven teamed up with the movie "Super 8" to offer prizes for those who checked in at the retailer on Foursquare. Every 88th check-in received tickets to the film, and the 888,888th person won a private mission to space. Brands also often tie charities into promotions. Recently, Starbucks contributed $1 to the AIDS Free Generation fund for every time a user checked in.
This aspect of experiential and digital playing off one another is increasingly important for marketers to understand, providing incredible opportunities, particularly in retail, where mobile experiences can be tailored to enhance the retail experience.
The most successful brands have capitalized on the ease of sharing content across platforms. Juicy Fruit's "Serenading Unicorn" became a viral sensation, prompting social media users to share the comical videos via their respective networks, including Facebook and Twitter. Happy Studio is available for kids online as well as via mobile devices, making it easy for them to play the game on their parent's -- or their own -- cell phone or tablet device.
Parents can use virtual worlds and rich online entertainment sites to help teach kids valuable social skills like sharing, communication, fairness, and consequences. In 2002, the LeapPad was voted "Educational Toy of the Year" by the Toy Industry Association. In 2011, LeapPad went digital, creating its own version of the iPad to engage kids via a mobile, digital screen.
Teachers are also increasingly using these tools in classrooms and as part of homework to educate and counsel kids. Online research and digital classrooms are an entrenched part of education today, and digital literacy is an important part of that. Fuel helped Google create THINKB4U -- an entertaining, interactive video site that illustrates common situations that kids and teens encounter on the internet, and addresses the best ways to handle each issue. And of course to be relevant, this required an engaging, mobile-friendly HTML5 web experience with entertaining, interactive, live action video that was then connected to lesson plans.
For kids, interactivity and the satisfaction (reward) of making the right decision makes the experience compelling and fun, but educational. Following the same philosophy, Apple has recently made great inroads into education, with the introduction of iTunes U, which gives educators an easy way to design complete courses with audio, video, and other types of content, and a way to distribute these courses through the iTunes U app.
The internet, digital play, and online communication are indelible aspects of our everyday lives, and today's most successful brands have evolved accordingly. According to the Harris Poll Youth EquiTrend study, Apple, Capri Sun, and Oreo were rated as the top youth brands of 2012, and you can bet they got there by doing their research into the needs, behaviors, and play patterns of young people, and nurturing those relationships from youth to adulthood. Harris Interactive also states that young Americans are expected to spend $211 billion in 2012. If you want a piece of that pie, it's time to get in the game.
Jeff Roach is chief strategy officer and group executive creative director at Fuel Youth Engagement.
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"Mother and son shop online" image via Shutterstock.
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