Young People - How to make friends and influence young people

Engaging with the youth market online is a tough call for brands. Adam Woods reports on how advertisers can ingratiate themselves on social networks and virtual worlds.

Virtual worlds: a critical area for engagement with young people
Virtual worlds: a critical area for engagement with young people

You may be an adult with a job, but you probably still feel young. You have an Xbox 360 and a Nintendo Wii, you spend a lot on trainers and you remember what school was like. These are young people's things and you understand them, so you must be young too.

Except you're not. You're retro-young and real young people can spot you a mile off, even when you're online. If you don't think so, go for a wander around a youth-oriented virtual world and see how many friends you make.

In the past eight years, the proportion of seven- to 16-year-olds who use the internet has rocketed from 61% to 96%, according to BMRB's Youth TGI data. Among 11 to 16-year-olds, social networking is the number one internet activity and it is close to ubiquitous, with 89% of that age-group's online population taking part. The kids have changed since you were one of them. And they have changed a lot.

"It is absolutely fascinating to witness the sophistication of kids as young as seven and eight," says Barnaby Dawe, Turner Broadcasting's vice-president of marketing and communications. "You go into somewhere like Habbo and say 'hi' and you can see them move away, as though you are an old man."

Brands face the same problem. They have figured out that social networks and virtual worlds are where the hard-to-find kids spend their time, but that doesn't mean they can charge straight in and spark up a conversation, any more than they could invade a treehouse and join the gang.

Beyond advertising

Since the dawn of children's social networking - not very long ago, given that even MySpace, the daddy of the medium, is barely five years old - advertisers have learned fast that these destinations are less an advertising platform than a vehicle for engagement.

Chris Seth, managing director, Europe, of teen site Piczo, confirms that social networks obey different rules to other online media. "Advertising on its own is only part of the solution and isn't the most effective part when it comes to pure social media," he says.

"The opportunity is to go beyond advertising to create content that engages young people, makes them fans of the brand and allows them to amplify the message of your brand."

In a media world awash with attempts at engagement, nowhere is the concept more critical than in the social networks and virtual worlds designed for and inhabited by younger consumers (see page 16).

"You can't just go and blast people with brand messages - it is all about ingratiating yourself," says Dawe. "A social network is about building friendships, so you have to fit into that environment and ask yourself: 'Do I have what nice friends have?'"

In this context, nice friends have entertaining things that they give out freely, asking for very little in return. Widgets, games, videos, music and opportunities to "co-create" are the way to the childish heart, while one-way messages, "push" communications and tiresome response techniques will make kids wander off.

Digital agency clickTag, which creates applications for Piczo, has expanded its social networking-related activity to 20% to 30% of its business in the past year. Partner Andy Reid says the speed of the environment's development is testing even specialists. "In the past 18 months, we have noticed that it is purely about engagement - not necessarily requesting kids to do anything but be in the space and experience the brand," says Reid.

In many cases, this has meant a move away from promotional devices such as competitions to no-strings-attached entertainment.

But, given the right cause, the youth market is still very capable of getting involved and a good campaign can beget a virtual street team of brand advocates. For example, a promotion in Habbo Hotel for last year's St Trinian's movie created a series of houses like the ones in the film. Users could join a house and recruit new members - and they did, pulling in 10,000 young people.

"Virtual worlds are the perfect permission-based environment," says Phil Guest, Habbo's senior vice-president for global ad sales. "If you bring a brand into a community in a relevant way, you get phenomenal levels of involvement."

Recent campaigns on Piczo include one run by Reebok with rapper 50 Cent, where the community was urged to upload footage of their own rhyming skills and take part in virtual rap battles. "All this was aimed at launching a new shoe, but the majority of the community wanted to get involved in it," says Seth. "It is not seen as intrusive and in many cases it is not even seen as advertising."

As children get older, they are more likely to be members of several networks. Douglas Dunn, managing director of Tuned In Research, which carries out research into cultural trends, says that while young people are fussy consumers, they are by no means averse to brands. "What we can see from the latest research is a pretty high level of brand engagement," he says. "Among 16 and 17-year-olds, 29% have forwarded an e-mail about a brand to a friend, 32% have become friends with a product or brand on a social networking site and 31% have joined a group about a brand."

Distinct destinations

While Facebook, MySpace and Bebo have significant penetration in the youth market, the younger end of that demographic has its own set of distinct online destinations, such as Piczo and Habbo, Vizwoz, Club Penguin and Stardoll.

These networks and worlds have a correspondingly diverse set of business models and not all sites aim to make their fortunes from advertising.

Canada's Club Penguin, bought by Disney last year for $700m and recently set up in the UK, has confirmed that its new corporate parent won't affect the ad-free policy of the site, which makes its money from monthly subscriptions paid for by parents.

In October, Facebook instigated a full UK roll-out of its Engagement Ads programme, which allows users to comment on targeted brand ads. Meanwhile, Bebo has been particularly active in creating TV-style online video content, giving advertisers rich, long-term brand-building opportunities.

Brands have come a long way towards appreciating the idiosyncrasies of these remarkable worlds and many are finding success in generating the engagement they crave. Indeed, some are finding more success than they necessarily budgeted for. ClickTag's Reid finds that brands are routinely surprised by just how powerful social networking can be, and are often unprepared for the scale of the response and the consequent need for fresh content and ongoing dialogue.

"We did something for Bratz on Piczo last year and they got 68,000 people returning to the site on a daily basis," he says. "The problem starts when a brand isn't geared up to handle that kind of interaction."

The message is: be careful when you try to interact with kids, because they might just want to interact back.

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