How to Bond With Teenagers Online

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The media argument for marketing to teen-agers via the Web as a key touch point has been displaced by a challenge over how best to do it. This is a generation, after all, who grew up with browsers open. Brands seeking to bond with teens must behave online as naturally as the audience with whom they're trying to forge a connection.


Who does it right? There are the predictable Yahoo, ESPN, MTV, IGN and the various AOL sites at the top of popularity lists. But you also can glean tips from Lacoste, Rampage and even smaller, eclectic sites that don't appear in the usual rankings. So, drawing on experience, instinct, advice from teens and some common sense, here are several pillars on engagement to keep "on the wall" when trying to bond online with teens:


Authenticity wins credibility. The first barrier to interaction is credibility. Credibility gives you access and permission to talk with the youth market, and the best route to it is via trust that you are, well, cool. The right celebrity, for example, can give a site credit: Mischa Barton's fashion advice, Shaun White's snowboarding tips.


When a celebrity says it's cool, teens listen. Consider language, too. We've all seen marketers try to keep up with teen language, but from the look of outdated slang dictionaries on the Web, there's more to lose than to gain. The slightest suspicion or break in their attention, and you're revealed as to who you are: a prying, poking adult who wants to take their money.


The goal is not to blow it. Rather than make a fool of yourself trying to keep up with evolving language, I advise creative executives to avoid missteps and pitfalls and work tirelessly to keep it real and accessible. Keep up with what not to say. Kids liked our three seasons of "Summit High" Webisodes for the Office of Drug Control Policy for their authenticity. Our secret? We painstakingly ran scripts and copy decks past real teens, via our youth panel, and even behavioral psychologists.


Part of the new authenticity is transparency. In the networked world, kids know where things come from. They can find out the truth in minutes and share it among their network within the hour. I wasn't surprised at a prominent link on http://lyrics.astraweb.com: "Hate this advertising? Click here for an explanation." The lesson is not to hide anything and give real advice. It takes a few clicks to find out who's paying for it or whether the source has credibility.


Be practical, useful, helpful. And quick about it. Teens are online to communicate, play and - less recognized by brands - to accomplish something. Fashion retailer Rampage, for example, has an outfit builder that lets you put together an outfit and then send it to your friend before you buy it.


The Web is an active research channel, tapped by teens to download novel summaries for English class, solve a bet on song lyrics, read product reviews on Amazon.com before shopping, read a friend's wish list for her birthday and, of course, "Google" a TV crush (or teacher crush). FAQ for help is OK, e-mail is too slow, live help from a customer agent with instant messenger is better.


Say hello right. The Internet's speed and nature have changed how we introduce markets to fickle teens. What a brand does in its first days counts. It's how news gets spread, sites get seen, ads are responded to - and stuff gets sold. Peer-to-peer is precious, and online, it's more powerful than traditional advertising. Consider before any mass push, should you seed the market online and let referral and viral demand attract early adopters? Should you hold off a few weeks on TV and use it differently?


Exclusivity. Ego. And a lesson in popularity. Teens like to be in the know. The one who is first to share something is first in the pack. Teens take pride in discovering things themselves and like to invite friends "in" to show off what they found. It's not about providing music, but unique bands their friends don't (yet) know, or being first with a preview. There's incredible status in this behavior. It should shape what brands provide as value.


I'm bored. That's gross. You gotta see this. Teens also are online because they're incredibly (albeit, momentarily) bored. Teens appreciate brands such as always-fresh MTV and EXPN (ESPN's extreme sports). There also are beloved sites that provide stuff for no known commercial reason: a game where you simply spank a monkey, a low-tech page with facts about shoe grime, a video to watch about Jennifer Aniston's closet.


This stuff gets page views and passed around. Don't underestimate the serendipity of browsing, either. Sites like Mountain Dew in Poland (www.md-extreme.pl) have virtually no navigation and you find your way through it. In online advertising, it's amazing how accepting kids are of unbranded, teaser banners, assuming the payoff is worth it. Kids like to find things out themselves.


Don't take me for granted: Participation and customization. Old media talk to you. The Web lets teens talk back. Teens need to participate in this brand experience. They need an outlet to express themselves, to be heard, to show off and their opinion followed up on. It shows respect and improves bonding to the brand. Otherwise, you're not making good use of how they instinctively use the Web as a channel.


Remember, though, their expectations for interactivity have evolved, and the bar gets higher every cycle. Five years ago, all of us created sites and online ads with gee-whiz features like polling, message boards and, ooh, the ability to change the site background color! Kids loved it then; now they expect it.


Design. Homegrown vs. slick. Though expectations for functionality and experience rise every six months, I see a different shift for design. Teens love the rich experiences of Sprite and Nike sites, and naturally www.mtv.com, yet nearly half of the sites I see teens visit are rawer and more handmade in design or tone. Web page design that looks built with a home editor. Video clips that seem edited last night. And, of course, "borrowed" intellectual property from big brand sites or TV commercials.


I'm guessing it comes from the populist spirit and reality of the Web - of home pages, blogs and the desperate pursuit of authenticity and accessibility. Brands need to find the right tone and slickness for their Web design and experience.


Always in motion. Without going anywhere. Teen Web design also has movement, whether it's a subtle design movement or heavy use of Flash and video. At the same time, successful teen sites also follow one trait of adult online design: more functionality within the interface. Fewer clicks. More happening within the screen you're on.


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