What a Teen Consumer Wants
October 19, 2004

Teens are the savviest consumers out there, so why don't marketers give them more credit?

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.


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