The Perfect Storm: Marketing to Youth

The advertising marketplace has a lot going on. My friends on the national-broadcast buying side of the house spent the past week burning the midnight oil (more accurately, the 4 a.m. oil) as the network upfront reached a frenzy one could call unprecedented. I won’t spend time discussing the lunacy of the ritual mating dance between buyers and sellers. Scores of articles have already been written on that subject. I also won’t tell the broadcast networks they’re in for a rude awakening in light of their audacious rate increases and eroding ratings. Instead I’ll focus this column on marketing to youth in the context of what I call the “perfect storm.”

The perfect storm could be termed the “tipping point,” a phrase Malcolm Gladwell coined in his book of the same name. The concepts are similar: One can predict rapid and cataclysmic change once a point of “ignition” is reached (remember chemistry lab?). In the case of a storm, it may be an upper atmosphere disturbance coupled with warm water temperatures.

In digital marketing, it can be a simultaneous occurrence of market forces. Forces may include increased broadband penetration; nearly identical TV and Internet usage among teens and young adults; a depressed economy; and an industry demanding double-digital rate increases despite eroding market share. If this isn’t the perfect storm, I don’t know what is.

According to Jupiter Research (a unit of this site’s parent corporation), the number of broadband households is expected to increase from 21.4 million (about 19 percent of U.S.) in 2003 to 40.7 million (about 35 percent) in 2007. If I were a betting man, I’d predict even faster adoption as cable operators and telcos battle for ownership of high-speed home connections. Combine at-home broadband penetration with work and academic usage, the numbers are even more impressive.

If you buy that broadband will be a meaningful reality in the next few years, you can then look at media usage in broadband homes across multiple demographics. We have a proprietary tool at our agency, Media In Mind. It’s an extensive, ongoing research panel that probes consumers on usage, attitudes, and behaviors across media types and brands. We’ve found some remarkable statistics across younger consumers. Young adults (18-24) in broadband households consume almost exactly the same amount of TV as they do Internet. Even in the 25-34 age bracket, we see Internet usage at approximately half that of TV. Those are significant findings. If only spending were commensurate with usage (it’s coming — I promise).

Broadband is coming, and young consumers use it almost as much as TV. How do we tap into that fertile market? It shouldn’t come as a huge surprise that younger consumers use the broadband-enabled Internet as a source of communication, entertainment, and information (typically in that order). We’re fortunate to have many clients who target this group, so we’ve been able to test and learn across multiple strategies and tactics.

The guiding principle when addressing this group is to talk with them, not to them. They have hypersensitive marketing radar and can smell a “sell job” a mile away. Hot buttons — instant messaging, email marketing, viral marketing, advergaming, streaming audio, file sharing, and nonintrusive rich media — are prime methods for reaching this audience.

There’s a trend in the agency community of devoting specific resources to understanding and connecting with young consumers. Our agency created a sub-brand called “Tag.” Other agencies have somewhat similar offerings. These specialty units are built on the understanding the traditional marketing and media arsenal of TV, print, radio, and out-of-home may not be the powerful mix it once was. Young consumers don’t see the world as traditional and digital media silos, but rather as a continuum of entertainment, information, and communication.

Today’s young consumers are tomorrow’s adults. With digital technologies rapidly pervading the landscape, lines between digital and traditional media will continue to blur. The disparity between the real-world economy and the old-school broadcast community only magnifies the situation. Clients are beginning to put their money where their mouths are. I can almost guarantee monetary backlash as a result of this upfront season.

I hear thunder rumbling in the distance. The perfect storm is inching closer with each passing day.

Are you ready?

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