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Their So-Called Life

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When it comes to reaching teen girls online, traditional marketing efforts are as relevant as MySpace. They're not only a bundle of contradictions, they're still building their identities and moving among these different identities every day.

This target audience -- let's call her Caitlyn -- changes identities as often as she changes ringtones on her phone. At 13-years-old, Caitlyn has several different online identities: a scholastic identity, a church identity and others for volunteering, family time and, of course, her BFFs. So who's Caitlyn? She's all of these and more. How can you possibly craft long-term marketing campaigns around that? The situation gets more complicated: Three years from now, just when you thought you had her figured out, she turns 16 and the process starts all over again.

Our research into this fickle communications target has uncovered many insights.
For one, many marketers believe a teen girl is hyper-connected, that she's always online sharing everything -- including the good, bad and ugly about your company. But brands rarely enter teen girls' minds unless they are top fashion brands. Truth be told, they're much more preoccupied with their own social activities than marketing messages.

Teens are also believed to be early adopters of the latest technology tools.
While this is true to a degree, teen girls are also insecure, so purchasing decisions don't always come down to the latest, greatest products. Caitlyn, for example, spent an hour in the Verizon store before deciding on a pink Razr instead of the Sony Ericsson W580i. Why? She trusts the Razr and she doesn't want people to think she's trying too hard to look cool.

Another fallacy is that teen girls need constant stimulation due to attention deficiencies. The assumption is they're almost all doing something else while they browse and that they leave sites they find too difficult to figure out. Yes, they multitask, but it's because they're so busy balancing homework and social lives; doing five things at once makes them feel they have a semblance of control.

And while many believe this generation is more socially concerned than any other generation, some teens are not ardent social activists. Many are not quite ready to abandon their fast-food lifestyle, so social posturing plays a small part in some teens' altruistic tendencies.

Lastly, it's widely believed that teen girls can filter information they find online, but this isn't always the case -- especially when it comes to information regarding mental, sexual and general health issues. She might end up on Yahoo Answers or WebMD, but Caitlyn is also guilty of Googling her health questions, which leaves her susceptible to misinformation.

Given the realities, here are some best practices for marketers:

1. See teen girls as social entrepreneurs and create a cause. While parents may no longer be the targets of teen rebellion, harmfully perceived ideas/organizations/ brands are. Teens want to make a difference and are susceptible to cause marketing because of their generation's innate altruistic sensibilities. The key is to incorporate charitable campaigns within the context of their day-to-day lives, so marketers can capitalize on teens that are genuinely interested in social issues and those posturing with personal gains in mind.

2. Unless you're Coach, Apple or Juicy, understand that as a brand, you're mostly irrelevant. When it comes to fashion, they're conscious of wanting to associate themselves with leading brands, but have little time for anyone else. If you don't help with teen girls' personal image, then they want to know, "What can you do for me?"

3. Plan to lose them and have a strategy to reclaim them. Rarely will you find loyalty with this target. You will lose them -- probably more than once. The trick is to find new strategies to bring them back.

4. Enable digital schizophrenia. We call this the "thousand points of light" approach to marketing. Choice leads to fragmentation and teen girls love to try new things, though not necessarily purchase them. The best marketers help facilitate this rapid form of marketing prototyping by offering teen girls free samples and online demonstrations to help them envision how the product fits into their busy lives. Just remember it's not about you, but what you're enabling the teens to do.

5. Don't forget mom and dad: Sometimes they're your real target audience. Sixty-three percent of teens say they go to parents/guardians for information on health and nutrition, according to the Scarborough Kids Internet Panel's Teen Health Perceptions Study.

Marita Scarfi is evp, COO at Organic.