Take Care When Targeting Teens Online

Teenagers are a mystery to most adults. New technology and media are another mystery to many adults. Combine these mysteries and you have ample opportunity for adult misperception of how teenagers use and feel about new technology and media.

Some recent research works to get beyond popular misconceptions and provide a look at how teens actually engage with these things, including the advertising they encounter along the way.

Based on quantitative and qualitative research conducted between January and April, a report released last month by GTR Consulting confirms the conventional wisdom that teens are deeply involved in social networking.

But it raises serious doubts about how congenial a medium this has been for marketers trying to reach the teen audience. Asked to cite the online activities they indulge in during their free time, 66 percent of the teens said they “use social networks” — exceeding the number who said they “watch user-generated videos” (59 percent), “send or receive instant messages” (51 percent), “play online games” (50 percent), “watch TV/movie clips” (36 percent), “get news/current events” (34 percent) or “blog” (12 percent).

The report emphasizes that social-networking sites “have become more important for communication and connection among teens than the telephone, e-mail or instant messaging.” (See also: “Probing the Minds of Teenage Consumers”)

But that doesn’t necessarily mean teens constitute an audience for marketers when they’re visiting social sites. “Notably, we found that teens use social networks to socialize, not to read ads, play games or participate in marketing efforts,” says the report. Indeed, GTR finds teens critical of online advertising more generally.

“They know that advertising is the price to pay for getting online services for free,” says the report, “but after spending hours online each day, they have grown weary of the many variations of online marketing. . . . From banner ads, online billboards, pop-ups and advergames to fictitious brand profiles on their social networking pages, teens universally point to these marketing efforts as their least favorite aspect of the Web.”

A report released in the spring by youth-marketing agency Fuse (in tandem with the University of Massachusetts at Amherst) found a similar aversion to advertising via social sites. One part of its polling, fielded in June, asked teens to say how they’d like brands in various categories to advertise to them.

Ads on social-networking sites ranked poorly across a range of sectors. For instance, just 10 percent of respondents said they like apparel brands to reach them via social networking, vs. 71 percent saying they like those companies to use TV spots; 14 percent said they like consumer-electronics companies to advertise to them via social networking (vs. 69 percent saying the same about TV spots); 11 percent like getting food and snacks marketing messages via social networking (vs. 78 percent citing TV).

Since social networking is so important to teens, do brands risk an out-and-out backlash if they blunder intrusively onto that turf? Gary Rudman, president of GTR Consulting, suggests that they do. “If brands are clumsy and fail to understand how teens want to be approached in the social-networking environment, marketers are risking a potentially hostile reaction,” he tells AdweekMedia.

As for online advertising more broadly, he adds that teens are “frustrated by ads that disrupt, distract and disturb their online experience.” Or, as GTR’s report puts it, “From what teens have told us, online advertising is interruptive, distracting and intrusive. In a nutshell, online advertising is not working for this generation.”

Bill Carter, a partner in Fuse, has also seen wariness of marketers’ ventures into social media when these are out of sync with the reasons teens go to these sites. “Teens are indifferent to advertisers on social networks who don’t participate in the actual purpose of the social network, which is to actively communicate with each other and have fun in their communities and organized groups,” says Carter. “Advertisers that treat social networks like billboards, TV, radio or other media in which they simply run advertising will be met with at best a neutral reaction from teens and can be met with real backlash.”