Take Time to Understand the Teen Market

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Welcome to the mind of teen-agers, but are you really invited? You don't speak their language, you don't wear their clothes and you certainly don't listen to their music. It is a place where the voices of friends are the most influential messages received, where heroes are mom and Britney Spears, and where the world is reinvented every day.


As a marketer, the teen mind can be tough to understand. Teens are skeptical of messages from outsiders. Their trends change as quickly as the latest reality television show, and one of their primary goals is to be an individual ... just like everybody else.


These marketing challenges are best conquered by making an effort to understand the teen. Conventional marketing wisdom says that you should develop solutions that fit a particular brand. We, however, preach the practice of inversion. What this means is that you should focus on the audience first and develop the most appropriate marketing initiatives for them. By investigating their lifestyles and consumer habits, you will gain a unique knowledge of the teen audience and can then transfer that information into effective solutions and programs to increase loyalty.


The following are key guidelines that are apt to get you the results you desire from this elusive market:


Insight and integration.


Allow teens to get involved in making decisions for themselves and for your brand by giving them a platform from which to voice their opinions. Be sure to listen to what teens have to say because, frankly, who is more qualified to tell you what teens want from your brand than teens themselves?


Online and offline focus groups and surveys are excellent ways to enter the teen mind. Additionally, we developed another way to obtain information called Discovery Sessions. This "anti-focus" focus group allows a marketer to intersect with teens directly within their day-to-day environment.


Regardless of how you gather the information, gather all you can because you can be sure they won't let you stay for long. Then, you must translate that knowledge into something useful. It is one thing to gather and own the insights, it is entirely different and more productive to gather, own and use the insights to enhance your product.


For example, a shoe company looking to develop a new sneaker specifically for young girls sponsored pizza party sleepovers in key markets to gain insight about the new style, feel and color of the shoe. The sleepovers were an unobtrusive way to obtain information within the girls' familiar environment. By doing this type of research prior to the launch, the company was able to customize the shoe based on the opinions of girls nationwide (and not those of a few research and development folks).


Know your core.


It is necessary to change with the times and to act on valuable teen insight. At the same time, it is of equal importance to stay true to what your brand is about.


Teens are aware of marketing schemes and gimmicks, so don't try to transform your brand into something it is not or you will lose their trust and business. Madonna is a wonderful example. She has consistently stayed true to her core essence while simultaneously evolving year after year. Despite drastic style and sound reinventions, Madonna remains an outspoken individual who constantly leads the way to the next trend. Just as Madonna has steadfastly maintained her position in the entertainment industry, you can build staying power with teens by always adhering to your overall brand mission.


Find the thought leaders.


Teens look to their peers for advice on what to wear, who to listen to, when to log on and where to shop. It is crucial to identify the teen influencers and harness the power of word-of-mouth. For instance, when a well-known apparel company launched a new style of jeans, the marketers went directly to the teen trendsetters in top markets and gave them each a pair.


The simple act of offering the product to those individuals who lead trends among their peers resulted in an increase in sales. Their peers were exposed to the new style and bought some for themselves. Do not underestimate the effect that viral marketing campaigns such as this can have on your business.


Be a consumer activist.


Attitudes, choices and allegiances change constantly with the teen consumer. If you are dedicated to reaching this audience, you must stay continually aware of the lifestyle choices teens are making and the issues that affect them.


By actively pursuing insider information, and not relying solely on MTV and Teen People magazine for insight on teens, you can establish the teen connection that is so valuable today. You and your brand will benefit greatly from closely examining the teen audience and staying in tune to the pulse of their lives.


Get a Sherpa.


If the transmission in your car went, you would not fix it yourself, right? You would hire a professional to assess the problem and help you develop a solution.


If you are having trouble building initiatives for the teen audience, you should investigate companies that build programs geared for teens. These companies can connect you to this hard-to-reach demographic.


The teen market is a powerful one and, at the same time, a difficult one to target. Follow the above guidelines and your efforts to connect your brand to the capricious teen-ager will be elevated. By developing initiatives that integrate these strategies, you will have the ability to move out of your bubble and into theirs, if only for a little while.


• Gary Colen is president of Triple Dot Communications, Boston, a leading young adult marketing agency and a division of Alloy Online Inc. Reach him at knowledge@tripledot.com.
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