In search of a youth connection

Young consumers, with their ever-changing trends, buzzwords and priorities can baffle marketers and their traditional research tools. Reaching them requires a new approach, says Sarah Forsey

The youth market is considered to be one of the most cynical that brand owners can hope to crack. Despite the fact young people are growing up in a world saturated with easy-to-access information thanks to on-demand technology, communicating with this generation has never been such a challenge. As a demographic, it is notoriously difficult to categorise, fast-moving and made up of fragmented subcultures.

Yet winning over their opinion is well worth the effort. The buying power of young people and teenagers today is unprecedented partly due to a culture of easy-to-access credit – and the credit crunch has yet to affect on this. As this generation is about to go through its first recession, this may be the first time that many will have experienced any purchasing restrictions at all. Alongside their individual spending potential, young people have a big influence on the purchasing choices of their parents, adding further weight to their consumer power.

To keep up with ever-changing youth trends and fashions, market research is usually one of the first tools that marketers turn to, but traditional research methods are often not that useful. “You have to approach the community on their level, but if you appear to be piggybacking on a subculture for commercial gain, you’ll alienate yourself from the audience you’re try to set up a dialogue with,” says Chris Price, part of the creative solutions team at youth marketing specialist Don’t Panic Media.

Many research methods fail to provide authentic insights as they do not succeed in tackling teenagers’ mixture of cynicism and awkwardness. “They are going through an awkward phase and classic research environments such as focus groups can be negative, as teens feel under pressure from their peers and often from the researcher,” says Juliette Terrazas, director of Evo Research and Consulting.

The best way, it seems, to get genuine research results from the youth market is to ensure that they are engaged, even distracted while the research is taking place, so they are not conscious of what they are revealing. Studying peer groups is a good way of conducting ethnographic research on young people as natural interactions between social groups can reveal a great amount of uncensored behaviour that would not occur in a usual research setting, where participants can feel under pressure to behave in a certain way. Doug Dunn, managing director of lifestyle research agency Tuned In Research, suggests that variables as insignificant as location can make a dramatic difference to the success of research, especially when dealing with young people. People tend to feel more at ease in their “natural environment” and so “it is important that research subjects do not feel as if they are ‘mice in a laboratory’,” says Dunn.

Tuned In Research has carried out focus groups in many places that provide a much less intimidating situation for young people than a typical research room, including beaches in Ibiza, go-karting conventions and sending out “street teams” across London. All of these places provide a more natural environment for young people. “Accessing the right people is the first step,” says Dunn, “and sometimes you have to have the tenacity to find those people, as they may not come to you.”

Let consumers take the lead
The line between market research and the marketing of a product is becoming blurred. User-generated content and consumer participation encourages word of mouth, a marketing tool, yet it is also useful for research purposes. If young people are getting involved in a product’s research in a memorable way they will want to share it with their friends and their world, giving their thoughts and opinions. Social media networks provide a platform for anyone who wishes to present their ideas to the world, acting as a catalyst for the influential culture of citizen journalism that exists. The popularity of blogging, for example, demonstrates the success of participation. Opinions about your brand will always be broadcast somewhere, but the key is to provide the platform for it so that brands can be aware of these opinions.

Ian Bushell, head of consumer, at experiential agency Jack Morton Worldwide, says: “Participation marketing is not without its risks. Brands will open themselves up to the possibility of public criticism and they will not have total control of the dialogue. However, if it is important to the brand to gain credibility with and secure loyalty from the audience, then it is something which must be embraced.”

The textbook marketing techniques that used to encourage the youth market to think about a brand, product or service in certain ways have become outdated. A decade ago, brand association and sponsorship was enough to reach young people, and it was common to see very unassociated products aligning themselves with, say, extreme sports events, music festivals and TV shows. More recently, it has become important to consider what people can “do” with the brand. How can they get involved so that it relates to their life in some way?

Thresholds have got higher
Jonathan Emmins, partner of experiential agency Amplify, says: “Getting target groups involved has always been key, but unlike ten years ago, when tickets to watch a band may have sufficed, young people now want to be backstage. Similarly listening to a DJ is OK, but it’s better still if your mate is doing the warm-up slot.”

This generation of marketing-savvy individuals needs to be convinced that a product will benefit them or make their life better. Contributing to a brand in some way, either creatively or by contributing to research, makes them feel involved and encourages word-of-mouth endorsements.

It is important to have an exchange between brand and consumer rather than a one-way flow of information. Don’t Panic Media’s Price says: “If a company that you’ve actively invested in then seemingly comes to you for your ideas, the consumer has the chance to shape the outcome, and by putting their ideas into the pot, they can steer the production of goods in their lifestyle direction.”

It is crucial to find out what people really think about products and not just what they say they believe. Ultimately, if they can give some real creative input to a brand, they are more likely to be honest with what they think about it.

The youth demographic is one of the most lucrative potentially yet the most fickle. Exposure to media at a young age has led to the KGOY factor (kids getting older younger) which means their early acquaintance has bred a generation of media-savvy, more critical individuals who immediately reject marketing messages that lack credibility. However, by taking the right approach and courting the good opinion of young people, many brands can be confident that their future prospects are greatly improved. 

Christian Aid’s shift of emphasis

As part of Christian Aid’s, experimental youth project, Ctrl.Alt.Shift, experiential agency Amplify created a film featuring Neg Dupree (pictured) of Channel 4 comedy series “Balls of Steel”, that takes traditional charity stereotypes (the charity shop donation, the charity bike ride) and turns them on their head.

This campaign, launched in September 2008, was designed to generate interest among the YouTube generation of 18- to 25-year-olds, re-engage them with the charity through one of their comedy icons and get them to think about the different ways that they could help using untraditional methods.

The film shows Neg, a “charity mugger” or “chugger”, going to great lengths to get people to donate to charity and failing, all to comedy effect.

After witnessing Neg’s failed attempts, the viewer is told that involvement in charity doesn’t have to be this difficult and is directed to Ctrl.Alt.Shift website to see for themselves.

The film takes a different approach to getting people involved in charity, and by prompting the laughs it gives young people a reason to forward the campaign on to their friends.

RAF on target

There are common misconceptions among young people that the Royal Air Force is only about pilots. The “Altitude” marketing campaign aims to give teenagers a real understanding about what life is like in the RAF, find out a possible role they could play, and prepare them for joining. Altitude was developed by direct marketing agency TMW and the Central Office of Information (COI).

The aim is to get teenagers actively involved in the Altitude programme and consequently participate with the RAF – both on and offline.

Altitude succeeds because it creates a participatory experience that allows the audience to discover, engage with and become involved in the RAF before they are eligible to join and fulfil their aspirations. Utilising online, offline and experiential channels, the campaign creates a seamless transition to RAF Careers – the multi-channel information service for people who want to start the recruitment process. So far, 15,000 members have signed up to Altitude since its launch in February 2006

Group effort wins EA Games support at music festival

EA Games is a practised user of experiential marketing, long investing in campaigns that inspire the participation and engagement of its target market, a big proportion of which is the youth market. One of the latest examples of EA’s strategy in action is a campaign run during last year’s Download festival.

Download is a three-day rock gig at Donnington Park that attracts 80,000 visitors each day.

The EA Games used the Download festival to support the launch of Rock Band. Experiential agency Circle created a participative audience experience called “Battle of the Bands”. Members of the audience were encouraged to group together to form bands – comprising a singer, two guitarists and a drummer – who then played to the crowd on a 70-inch screen; a kind of live Pop Idol for gamers. Participants and the audience were encouraged to choose the tracks and the levels of difficulty.

In addition, Circle staff mingled to sign up gamers for the EA HUB VIP Card. The HUB is EA Games’ high-spec roadshow vehicle, and the branded membership card allows users access to the HUB. The card features a barcode that is scanned using PDAs carried by field staff, and the consumer data is uploaded daily for use with Circle’s Livefeed software. Welcome emails are broadcast directing members to a VIP microsite containing exclusive invitations and special offers from EA brand and retail partners.

The result was that EA welcomed over 28,000 visitors on board the HUB, 950 bands rocked out over the three days with Rock Band and over 5,000 visitors provided consumer data.

Strategy that made Shout a voice to trust

Since 2006, the DC Thomson Youth Insight Programme (YIP) has succeeded in ensuring its publications talk directly to readers.

With the assistance of bi-annual research programmes and targeted focus groups, editorial teams have repositioned titles so that they connect better with readers. DCT now has a range of titles that engage young people across gender ranges and age ranges, from children to teenagers.

The jewel in the crown and perhaps the best example of this new approach is Shout, which is aimed at the fickle teenage market. Using its YIP along with nationwide reader focus groups, it is able to ensure editorial is entirely reader led, not spoon fed. This policy has resulted in Shout becoming the UK’s biggest teen title, generating over £4.6m in retail sales value and increasing its ABC figures six times successively.

Shout is rich in “teen currency”: valuable information that readers can trade on and exchange with friends. It also talks in the language of readers, using the appropriate vocabulary and buzz words that are part of their world.

This means the magazine is discussed, exchanged and – most importantly – trusted by the nation’s teens. Capturing the attention of a generation of channel hoppers, a magazine such as Shout becomes an advertiser’s best opportunity for a direct hit, and this has been recognised and has resulted in an increase in ad revenues too.

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