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How to Talk to Teens: 5 Lessons for Connecting with Today’s Youth

blame and shame, connecting with youth, digital age, digital natives, Kate Gunby, Marketing, marketing to youth, Pr, PRR, PRR Research, Public relations, teen culture, teen marketing, teen parentsBy Kate Gunby, Senior Research Associate, PRR

Any PR company knows that it’s hard to reach teens.

For one thing, today’s teenagers are digital natives—they grew up with the fast-paced content of the internet, and their online world is dominated by social media. Their experience isn’t anything like the experience of their parents or, at the rate things are changing, even their older siblings. Teen culture is resistant to adult interlopers. They speak their language better than anyone, and can smell a phony a mile away.

What’s all the more frustrating is that with all of these challenges, teens are an incredibly important audience and market to reach. They have influence over their friends, and are in their formative years in terms of establishing their likes, dislikes, and habits. They are the ultimate early adopters.

PRR Research continuously engaged with 80 diverse teenagers for 4 straight weeks during a month-long online study in King County, Washington. The goal was to learn what messages and mediums work best for teen vaping prevention, and along the way we picked up some important lessons about marketing to teens in general. Here are our takeaways:

  • Listen first: Teens want to be heard—The teens participating didn’t expect to be asked for their input, and expressed gratitude that we asked their opinions, genuinely listened, and then acted on their recommendations. Not only did we learn a lot, we got the message out to the teens that our client, King County, values their voices. And it is so much easier to communicate when coming from a place of mutual respect.
  • Inform, don’t sensationalize—Even in this fast-moving digital age, teens were looking to see that our health statements were supported by facts and provided citations. When messages exaggerated or over-simplified the harms of vaping, the teens dismissed them as “propaganda.” It’s okay to be a little flashy, but make sure you’ve got the information to back it up!
  • In the digital era, teens still value face to face interaction—Websites and social media are excellent ways to reach teenagers, but they aren’t the only way. Real world interactions and ads stick with people, and many teens say using buses, signs in bathrooms, billboards, and in-person conversations with adults would be a great way to connect with them offline.
  • Diversity is awesome—Participants responded positively to materials that included diversity of race, age and sexuality, and were quick to call out imagery that wasn’t diverse. When they felt like media fully represented them and their peers, they were much more willing to listen.
  • Don’t blame and shame—It is tempting to try to encourage the teens to be healthy by telling them that people who don’t make healthy choices are lame, but our participants told us that that was not the way to go. The teens were offended by “shaming” messages about people who engage in unhealthy behaviors, and identified it as online bullying. According to them, you’ve got to keep things respectful.

BONUS: Parents still have influence—The common wisdom is that teens can’t stand to talk to their parents even for a second, but we were pleasantly surprised to find that that the reality is much less extreme. Many teens said their parents were one of their main sources of health information, and some reported having health conversations with their families during the study.

Overall, the key to a successful campaign is to know and understand your audience before you market to them, including teens. Doing your homework by conducting some research and actually talking to your audience will not only make you more successful, but will also allow you time to adjust and refine your messages before it is too late.

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