The Teens They Are A-Changin’

One of the easiest traps to fall into when thinking about teens is to think back to your own teen years for guidance or inspiration. Those halcyon days of yesteryear may be wonderful to reflect on and reminisce about with friends but, trust me, they aren’t going to help you understand the current crop of teens. Why? Because the teen experience changes all the time.

In some ways things have stopped changing as much as they used to. When I was a kid I couldn’t really identify with my parents’ taste in clothes or music or pop culture. My own teen children don’t seem that different to where I was 30 years ago. (Damn, damn, damn, I just did it myself!) The truth is, they experience things very differently than I did at their age and to forget that is to risk doing really stupid things.

There are some very obvious things that have changed from one generation to the next. Technology, clearly, has changed a lot. Mobile, which has completely redefined our world, is less than a decade old. The Internet as a popular medium is less than 25 years old. Tech will continue to race ahead but think about other some of the other, more subtle changes. The media mix, for example, or going to the movies, or getting together with friends. All of these things have changed in ways that reframe the teen experience.

To try to a list of all the ways things have changed would be impossible so collected a handful of representative examples. It’s difficult to find exact apples-to-apples comparisons, so many of the stats included below should be viewed as directional. They illustrate broad changes in trends over time. Despite this, I think you’ll get the point.

  • Driving The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that, in 1996, 85% of high school seniors had their driver’s license. According to AAA, in 2014, only 54% of teens get their license by the time they are 18. The freedom of the open road just isn’t what it was. In part, the drop in driving rates is attributed to the recession; but many teens also report not needing to drive.
  • Summer employment In 1994, almost 55% of teens had summer jobs. Today that number is just under 35%. That’s a pretty big drop and one that impacts not only teen income but also the amount of idle time available to kids, and you know what they say about idle hands …
  • Marijuana use In 1996, the National Institute of Drug Abuse reported that 49.6% of high school seniors had used marijuana. In 2013, 41.3% of all high school students reported having smoked marijuana. This gradual decline is seen in virtually all substance categories. Cigarette smoking, for example, was reported by 65% of high school seniors in 1996 but by 2013 only 41% of high school students had ever even tried a cigarette.
  • Sex In 1996, a Kaiser Family Foundation survey found 29% of kids between 12 and 18 reported having had sex. Research by the Department of Health and Human Services conducted in 2013 found that 47% of high school students reported having had sex. That’s a pretty sharp increase; however, teen pregnancies are down.

These changes, occurring over the span of 20 years or more, make it critical to remove your memories from the way you think about teens. Asking teens directly may net some useful insights but perhaps the most effective approach for understanding teens is to observe and engage with them in their natural habitats. I’ve written about gaming connecting with teens through gaming communities and music in the past. These indirect routes may offer a clearer window into the lives of teens in a time of change.


Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

It’s Time To Engage Teens In More Positive Ways

I recently attended an event at MIT, “Coming of Age in Dystopia: The Darkness of Young Adult Fiction,” that looked at the dark world of teen fiction. It was a panel discussion that featured moderator Marah Gubar, a professor of literature at MIT; Kenneth Kidd, a University of Florida professor who focuses on children’s literature and Kristin Cashore, author of Graceling, Fire and Bitterblue. It was an interesting talk that highlighted the impact media can have on teens; as well as the responsibility of those who engage teens, through media or otherwise.

The discussion started with a reference to “Darkness Too Visible,” a 2011Wall Street Journal article by Meghan Cox Gurdon on the nature of young adult fiction. Almost four years after it appeared, it still evoked a strong response from Cashore. She and Kidd touched on the issue of censorship by parents, teachers and librarians, with Cashore saying such attempts demonstrated adults’ desire to avoid difficult issues.

What troubled me most about the event was an apparent double standard at play. Cashore seemed happy to recount the positive messages she receives from young readers who can identify and find strength through her characters, but spoke with derision of letters she receives from adults chastising her for the sex in her novels.

Frankly, I have no issue with sex but there are parts of young adult literature that I find problematic. These are around destructive behaviors that are either glorified or glossed over. For example, the book Willow came up during the event. It’s about a teen girl who becomes involved with self-harm and tells only her boyfriend. They don’t seek any adult support and it seemed irresponsible to leave kids with the message they can cope with this type of thing on their own.

While none of the panelists were familiar with the book, Cashore offered two defenses. The first was that different readers will take different things from a book and the second was that she believes this writing is not necessarily meant to be instructive. That second point is the one that bears consideration.

Those who create content for teens must be aware that their audience is constantly seeking direction and validation. Whether intentional or not, teens will take lessons from content they’re exposed to. Some will find positive messages and meaning in media and others will gravitate toward darker signals.

As new content and distribution channels have become available, the ability to curate content aimed at young people has diminished. Teenage boys no longer need to face the judgmental gaze of a convenience store clerk if they want pornography. Young girls, via the Internet, can be exposed to more information on a range of diseases and disorders than ever before. The MIT panel, for example, brought up Wintergirls on the topic of anorexia, which some critics described as “an instruction book for how to be anorexic.”

The new reality of unfiltered exposure to content can have serious consequences for teens; whether it’s a dramatic increase in eating disorders or kids deciding to leave home to join ISIS. The media genie is not something that can be put back into the bottle. So what can be done to engage teens in more positive ways?

  • Recognize that the media influences teens. To pretend otherwise is to play a dangerous game. If you are developing digital experiences for kids — even if fun and frothy — your audience may latch onto things in unintended ways.
  • Create opportunities for positive experiences. Digital media has teens and kids in its thrall, and that affinity can be used to expose these audiences to their potential and big ideas. It may not be easy but it is worth considering. John and Hank Green — and the whole “nerd fighter” movement — do this really effectively.
  • Cynicism is part of teen life but there should also be room for affirmation. Always’ “Like a Girl” Super Bowl spot is a great example of this being done well.

The teenage years may well be dark and difficult ones for most kids. Dwelling on the dystopian aspects of life does little to alleviate the challenges teens face and, in some cases, exacerbates those challenges. Marketers are not going to solve the problems of the still nascent world of digital media but if they are more mindful they can avoid making a difficult situation worse.

Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

Engaging Teens Through Music

Think back to your own teen years. Maybe it was not long ago. Maybe it was decades ago. What did you love when you were young? Cars? Video games? Movies? Dancing? Sports? Some of you probably liked some of those things but there is one thing pretty much every teen loves and that’s music. Music holds a special place in everyone’s heart and memory. A song from a long ago summer can bring back memories in a way few other things can match. Listening to and loving music is part and parcel of being a teen.

For some kids, music is about more than listening though. They want to play. That’s where there are opportunities for you to engage with teens. Now this might be a little self-serving (but probably not) but here goes.

I have two teenagers. My daughter, whom I’ll call Z, loves playing rock and roll. She listens to a lot of punk rock (classic and modern), hard rock, metal, screamo, emo and more. Finding an opportunity to play was a challenge. A few of her friends are musicians but not into rock, and while there were some kids at school, actually coordinating things was easier said than done. It was a problem.

That changed a few years ago when someone introduced her to PluggedIn, a band program aimed at teens. PluggedIn organizes kids into bands based on the music they’re into, has a building that is chuck full of practice spaces, has adults who mentor the kids and maintains a weekly rehearsal schedule. It’s all pretty turnkey.

Every week my wife or I drive Z to her practice and pick her up when it’s over. Sometimes this is inconvenient. Sometimes there are things she’d rather be doing on a Saturday afternoon. Sometimes, when she recounts her practice sessions, I wonder what they’re actually doing. Any doubts, though, are erased at their concerts.

A few weekends ago was their show. Z played in two bands, one on Saturday night and the other on Sunday afternoon. I’m not going to lie; there was some tragically terrible musicianship on display. But that didn’t matter, because there was plenty of good music too. What was also on display was a whole lot of teens doing something they really loved. When Z went up on stage and sang three songs with one of her bands I was blown away. It literally brought tears to my eyes.

As I looked at the audience and at the kids on stage and at the ones waiting in the wings, I saw people transported by the opportunity to make and enjoy music. There are programs like PluggedIn all over the country. There’s Camp Jam, School of Rock, Girls Rock and Seattle Teen Music to name just a few.

As budgets for the arts in public schools tighten, teens and their parents are turning to these programs as an outlet for expression and community. What I didn’t see at the PluggedIn concert — and here is where there’s an opportunity for marketers — was anyone sponsoring the program. It seemed crazy to me that there could be a group of 200 kids in one program in one community that was demonstrating loud and clear a really strong and specific interest without a business recognizing the opportunity to connect. It seems a shame that more marketers aren’t recognizing the potential of supporting kids in exploring a passion, especially one as strong as rock and roll.

Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

Make Time For Game Time

A new class of media channels is creating vast new audiences of deeply engaged young viewers. They are also blurring the line between creators and consumers. While some marketers recognize the potential of these platforms, there is more that can be done.

Twitch, Major League Gaming and Steam have made it possible for gamers to share their skills and connect with other gamers. These services have made gaming a spectator activity that has become wildly popular. While teen engagement through traditional media channels may have advertisers and marketers reaching for their Maalox, participation in these new platforms is going through the roof. Consider these facts:

  • Twitch has 100 million monthly viewers and over one million gamers streaming their sessions live
  • In 2013, MLG compared viewership for its Pro Circuit Championship with the NCAA March Madness Tournament Video Live viewership: MLG had 54 million hours of video consumed vs. just 14 million for the NCAA
  • On Jan. 4 of this year, steam saw its highest number of concurrent users:8.5 million; NBC was the highest rated network for the week ending Jan. 4– with 7.3 million viewers

These are big, big numbers and they point to a level of engagement between streamers and viewers that other media channels can’t approach or replicate. But what does this engagement look like? What are these millions of streamers and viewers doing for all of these millions of monthly hours? These are the basic activities:

  • Play — there’s got to be someone streaming their gameplay for this to work and so it starts with the gamer. Their game screen is the core of the experience. As they play the gamer is visible, either in a small pop-out box or green-screened in one of the corners.
  • Narrate — as they play, most streamers are talking — mostly about the game they are playing, the opponents they are facing, the system they are using, etc.
  • Interact — viewers can talk to each other via chat and with the streamer. Sometimes there may be a Twitter feed on the screen, sometimes a chat box. Either way, there is a lot of flow across the screen.

It can be a pretty busy experience for the uninitiated. What is missing from this cacophonous space is any meaningful marketing. What there is typically takes the form of video before a stream launches or a site takeover (“The Lazarus Effect” owned the MLG screen when I wrote this). There are also brands that sponsor specific teams or players. Little evidence of that appears in the actual stream experience though and that’s where the action is.

Figuring out how to connect with the audience is a tricky business and one that needs to be handled with some sensitivity. As was the case with social media when it first appeared on the scene, brands need to learn the rules and norms of these channels before barging in. Here are a few ideas for getting a handle on the world of streaming gaming:

  • Watch — have someone spend time simply observing what is happening, learning the language that is used, understanding how interactions take place in the environment.
  • Play — this is a tough job, but if you want to connect with this audience, someone is going to have to be a gamer. Why?
  • Stream — This is why you need a gamer. Ideally, you want people to want to watch you. Your brand can become a destination for this audience if you can present a personality that they want to connect with. A funny, affable, skilled player and voice is key.

Obviously, this type of thing isn’t appropriate for every brand; but for technology companies, game publishers, snacks and soft drinks, and entertainment properties this approach could make sense. Yet as was the case with the early days of social, brands wanting to participate in this channel need to be authentic, committed and thick-skinned (there’s no shortage of trash talking, trolling and inappropriate banter here).

A brand that is able to create a strong personality and following within the new realm of streaming gaming will have a direct channel to a large and growing audience in a way that no other channel currently offers. Seriously, make time for game time.

Originally published at www.mediapost.com.

Avoiding “Jackie Paper” Syndrome

As the app space has matured, marketers have become savvier about the cost of acquiring loyal customers. There’s one notable exception: those marketers who are targeting tweens and teens. This group is apparently happy to be in constant customer acquisition mode, forever welcoming new customers through the front door while watching them exit through the back. This is Jackie Paper syndrome.

For those of you unfamiliar with Jackie Paper, I suggest you listen to Puff the Magic Dragon. In the song, “painted wings and giant rings make way for other toys.” That’s what happens every day as hard-won customers age out of services and move on. Somehow, this just doesn’t seem to make sense. Sure, there are some products that are designed for people of certain ages (baby food, Depends, etc.) but apps and social platforms don’t need to be among them, do they?

While COPPA does draw a bright line between teens and not quite teens, it seems silly for companies catering to young people not to have a plan for carrying those customers forward into their teen years and beyond. This is a classic example of Jackie Paper syndrome. Once good money has been invested in attracting young consumers, why not create a path forward to maintain those relationships?

This seems to be a sensible approach but one rarely taken. As digital platforms and services become ubiquitous for young and old alike, creating services that comply with COPPA and are open to everyone seems like a pretty obvious idea. What stands in the way of this happening? It isn’t the technology or the ways the technology is used. In the end, it seems to boil down to the odd belief that experiences designed for tweens and teens have no place in the adult world.

How absurd.

While not many adults or older teens are going to sign up for sites or services that are clearly designed for young teens, kids who want to get involved with social are in a quandary. They can either a) stick to kids-only services or b) lie about their ages. If they take the first approach they’re going to find themselves segregated in the magical land of Honah Lee (another Puff the Magic Dragon reference FYI) that they’ll soon outgrow. If they choose the second approach they’ll find themselves trying to reconcile reality with the fiction the created when they were underage.

Is there a problem with finding yourself in an age-specific realm? Not necessarily. The biggest issue is attempting to transpose that persona once the post-COPPA world becomes a reality. All of the content and connections crafted as a tween fall by the wayside once the COPPA barrier is breached. The result is inconvenience as a new service needs to be identified and a new identity established.

Perhaps this isn’t that big a deal. Perhaps kids under 13 welcome the opportunity to reinvent themselves when they cross the magical threshold into their teen years. Perhaps all of the content and all of those connections lose their meaning overnight. Perhaps, but probably not. Marketers need to rethink their relationships with the tween and early teen set.

There’s nothing to prevent the creation of a social app that’s open to everyone. Such an app – one that provided all of the capabilities that consumers have come to expect from a social platform – could be crafted in a way that is age-agnostic. Taking this approach would allow marketers to treat their relationships with tweens and teens as extensible rather than temporary.

This approach would also allow young people to preserve and expand their online identities from the present into the future. Does this mean all members should be treated identically regardless of their age? Not at all. The fact is people of different ages have different expectations around privacy and the social experience, but those differences can be expressed in a single app rather than discreet ones based on age.

Given the cost of acquiring a customer, and the growing focus on customer lifetime value, falling prey to Jackie Paper syndrome seems a shame. It will also lead to marketers’ tears – like Puff’s green scales – falling like rain.

This post originally appeared on MediaPost Engage:Teens.