Lessons From the Super-Connectors

One thing will always be true about teenagers: they will grow up eventually. Though this may be comforting to millions of teenagers’ parents out there, it’s also something marketers who look to the future must pay attention to. Today’s teens are tomorrow’s adult consumers.

That’s why a new study from BBDO Energy caught my eye this week. The report takes a global look at 13-18 year olds and discovers they’re highly connected, engaged in a variety of “lean-forward” media, and are “self-activists, creative, and highly adaptable to emerging technologies.” They’re always on, always connected, and constantly engaged.

The report also finds (surprise!) these “super-connector” teens are highly resistant to advertising messages. They want to take things on their own terms and only respond to what feels relevant to them. Reaching them through traditional channels (TV and broadcast media) doesn’t seem to work as well as more viral techniques that empower them and make them part of the conversation.

“So what?” you may be asking if you’re not engaged with marketing to teens. “I’m glad I don’t have to deal with those kids. I market to adults!”

Yeah. Now you do.

The thing that strikes me about this study is that even if you don’t deal with consumers like these teens now, you will in the future. And the generation that’s coming up doesn’t look like it’s going to behave much like past generations we’ve marketed to. From a long-term strategic standpoint, it’s vital to understand how these up-and-coming super-connectors will affect how we do business in the future. They’re different, and they’re bringing the world along with them.

If you doubt the impact these teens have, check out the last six months of traffic stats for video-sharing site YouTube and teen social-networking site MySpace.com. Both are practically logarithmic in their explosive traffic numbers, numbers that continue to climb. And though they’re very different sites, they’re both defined by the fact they tap directly into the behavior patterns identified by BBDO’s study. They both allow connections and sharing (though their approach to copyright may shade a bit into the gray, and both are about networking between vast, disparate groups of people. Primarily, they’re about connections, self-expression, and sharing — hallmarks of today’s super-connector teens.

All this matters. A lot. Because the teens coming up today represent the best look at what happens when people grow up knowing only constant connectivity. Although with your BlackBerry, email, and cell phone, you may feel as if you’re always on, you probably remember what it was like before all that stuff. The 13-18 year olds today have no idea what it’s like not to be always on and always connected. They’re the cutting-edge early adopters not because they’re unstoppable technophiles, but because they have no other choice. Understanding them means understanding the way everyone uses the Web.

What does being always on mean? It’s being constantly engaged in a web of connections, with media coming at you from nearly every direction. It means turning to other people (even if you don’t know them) rather than automatically turning to official sources. It means your “trusted sources” are the tribe, not necessarily traditional authority figures in the media and government. In this web of always-on connectivity, information (and opinion) travel at the speed of the Net, bouncing through blogs, chat rooms, and IM sessions long before crisis-management specialists can craft press releases to spin the official story. In the world of the super-connectors, “amateur” isn’t a bad word and DIY is a way of life. They want the world to conform to their views, meaning personalization and customization are imperatives, not nice-to-have extras. They want conversations in the world of many-to-many, not broadcast dictums from on high.

If you look back at the last several decades, it should be obvious why paying attention to the attitudes of the young is so important. The rebellion of the ’60s begat the excesses of the ’70s and ’80s. The grunge/punk/DIY/questioning attitudes of kids in the ’80s begat the explosive growth of the Internet in the ’90s and still fuels it today. The connection/conversation/customization/technology-driven attitudes of today’s teens will continue onward, even as they mature and change. Once super-connectors, always super-connectors, even if they juggle those connections with kids, jobs, and mortgages in the future. Check out the “make your own commercial” MasterCard Priceless campaign for a good example of something well targeted to the new realities. Learning how to talk to super-connectors now means continued success in the future.

Related reading