By Niels Alberg
Everyone’s after the teen market—which is worth more than $200 billion in the U.S. alone. Companies have been pursuing teens doggedly for years, “cool-hunting” for trendsetters or throwing branded parties. J.C. Penny, American Eagle, and Forever 21 are making deals with teenage girls to make look-what-I-bought “haul” videos about their sponsored shopping expeditions for YouTube. Other companies just make a celeb deal—Burton, HP, Target, Oakley, and Red Bull all hit up superstar snowboarder Shaun White for his street cred.
Media companies are in a tough spot because creating compelling content demands a lot more subtlety than promoting products. To engage teens rather than merely influencing them you have to get down to the feelings teens share and understand the way they respond to the world. Based on the extensive research we’ve done on teens around the world here’s our two cents about what teens like.
What matters to teens?
We’ve been thinking a lot about who teens are: Is youth a unique phase in life or a hybrid of childhood and adulthood? If we could identify the characteristics that apply only to young people—but not to children and adults—we felt we’d have a good approach for figuring out what teens really needed. And that would give us a consolidated platform around which to develop the kind of ideas for media content that appeals to teenagers.
Teens share five characteristics that make them “uniquely young”:
Detached: No one desires the company of teens—they’re not unreserved the way children are, which is why adults and children love being around each other. Because adults have reservations about spending time with teenagers and teens are skeptical of other teens, teens are left essentially on their own.
Oppositional: Teens define themselves not by who they are but who they are not—so the street-savvy girl is highly focused on, say, not being the girl who likes riding horses.
High on influence: Teens develop special mix of exalted optimism and self-confidence when they discover their ability to understand and influence areas they’re interested in, such as politics and NGO causes.
Boundless: Teens experiment with limitations—they don’t try to experience their existence (like children do to feel the love of their parents) or to seriously engage in activities on the other side of social norms (as when adults visit swinger clubs to feel “free”). Instead, teens are simply interested in answering big questions about their abilities.
Fleeting: Teens feel entitled to change their mind and shift their fundamental ideas about the world—not because of insecurity or a lack of reliability but because that ability is seen as a fundamental privilege exclusive to being a teenager.
What does this all mean?
We put together three directives that diverge from what has become the comme il faux approach to teens by media companies.
1. Don’t respect their subcultures—let their ideas clash
Being a teen means renewing your commitment to your social group twice within a few years: First you go from being part of a family to being part of a large group of young people. Then you move on from the large group to a smaller subculture.
Why? Teens are by nature fragile and curious so they need to distance themselves from other groups of teens. Most media companies promote subcultures as a way of connecting to what teens want. Instead they should find a way to expose teens to other subcultures so teens can react: Being exposed to new ideas help teens strengthen ties to their own subculture or get inspired to move on. Both choices lend themselves to teens’ need to oppose things and to have fleeting attachments.
2. Don’t be afraid of being older—let them talk, listen, and learn from adults
Most media “experiences” use people just north of their teenage years—such as DJs on music shows or contenders in reality shows like Temptation Island—to talk to teens so teens can look up to someone not unlike themselves.
This doesn’t mean adults or even elderly people should be shut out of youth media. It’s just as important for teens to rebel against other young people as it is for them to rebel against their parents and their parents’ milieu. And teens are at the age where they benefit from a higher level of feedback—which they’re likely to get more of from people with more experience.
Case in point: One of the most consistent media successes in Denmark of the last forty years has been the youth radio host Tine Bryld—who was born in 1939! Even today she continues to dispense candid advice to teens on her weekly talk show. She talks openly with teens about love, drugs, adultery, and loneliness, and any or all other issues they find troubling.
3. Don’t give them fantasy—give them meso-reality.
Media—including games, books, movies, music, and online communities—give teens countless outlets for escapism. But for many teens the reality is at least as appealing as fiction, so it’s no wonder reality shows are a hit.
Here’s the deal: Reality shows deal in fantasy and escapism by promoting the dream of becoming a big star at an unrealistic pace (or by having celebrities participate in the show).
For teens the most interesting part of “reality” is what we call “meso-reality”—where real people are challenged with real problems, not artificial, scripted problems like those in Fox’s glitzy singles resort show Paradise Hotel or political issues framed as satire as in Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show.
When programmers find the sweet spot between micro and macro reality they have a good chance of striking home with content that works as entertainment but which also gives teens the guidance they need.