In a literal sense the online marketing industry is now 17 to 19 years old, depending on when you start the clock running. Just like a child, we’ve had our share of growing pains, awkward periods, and endearing moments full of discovery and wonder.
The young are so cute and full of promise we just can’t help but be drawn to them despite their constant needs and sometimes baffling demands. Parents feel, in equal parts, pride and a protective instinct as their offspring carves out their own space, begins to take a larger role in their own life, and have an impact on the surrounding environment. Most parents struggle with the teen years when the person begins to take shape, when risky behaviors become commonplace, and when identities are tested and developed. If your experience has been smooth sailing teen bliss then count yourself lucky and in the minority.
In an abstract sense, the digital industry teen years, much like human years, are about finding ourselves, finding our place in the larger communication and marketing universe, and surviving some reckless and risky behaviors that could have a passing or devastating impact on our future.
Those not-quite-yet-adult years are often characterized by:
Exhibiting risky or reckless behaviors. Teens think they are immortal. They can drive fast, experiment with drugs, consume barrels of alcohol, have risky sexual encounters, try physical stunts with or without helmets and other protective gear because they don’t believe that the laws of man or nature apply to them. They truly don’t believe they will get hurt. It’s only after life has beat them up a bit that they get some perspective on the hazards that surround them. It takes time and experience for that to happen and no amount of telling them will get through. That’s the tough part for parents to watch.
As an industry we got a bit drunk on the technological capabilities of our offerings without enough regard to the consequences of our actions. How does this impact the consuming populations? How are we safeguarding the privacy and well-being of everyone in the ecosphere? Are we thinking beyond the immediate time horizon?
Figuring out relationships and our place in the family. Kids, and teens especially, can be self-centered and they are torn between fitting in with the crowd and making a distinct statement about their individuality. It is likewise incumbent on the digital industry to not act like the rest of the world revolves around us. Older, wiser heads (and channels) still have value and still have something to teach us in the larger scheme of things. There will be more harmony if we stop trying to take over and focus on where we fit in the family of marketing and communications strategies and be the best us we can possibly be.
Choosing new paths or embarking on new adventures. Some very big and consequential decisions happen for many while an unpredictable teen. Career directions are taken, colleges are chosen, mentors emerge. None of these are irreversible but they can drive someone down a certain path – for good or not so good. Who are we choosing as role models of behavior and growth?
Trying on personas. Goth yesterday, nerd today, skater boy tomorrow. Teens try on looks and attitudes to try and find a comfortable way to move in their own skin and within their own groups. The search is instructive – and sometimes amusing. The digital industry is too diverse to claim a single persona so by that measure the comparison falls apart but we have struggled with where we fit. Is digital in the realm of the marketing team, the IT team, the PR team, or (as many organizations have cobbled together) an interactive team that incorporates some of the skills and experience across earlier departmental lines?
There’s no talking to them. Teens don’t listen to their parents – at least, not so the parents can tell. They listen to their peers so their preferences and behaviors are reinforced. It would behoove us as presumptive adults to listen carefully to others with wisdom and experience to help us sort out all the issues that aren’t new and unique to digital. There have been plenty of other mavericks who have carved out new territory. What can we learn from their mistakes and successes?
While we have focused on all the teen challenges, it should not be missed that there is a lot to admire in teenagers having a good day or week. They can focus on a goal with a single-mindedness that would impress a badger. They don’t set any limits for themselves so the whole world is their oyster. They fearlessly attack a problem with everything they have. So instead of presenting our industry in the guise of the obstinate, surly teenager, how can we capture the energy, enthusiasm, sense of purpose, and hopefulness that is all the good things that the teen years can represent?
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