Putting a ‘ring on it’; Using digital influence to win the hearts of teens

In her hit single ‘Single Ladies’, Beyonce says, “if you liked it then you should have put a ring on it”. If only it was that simple. For decades, brands have been trying to ‘put a ring on’ teens. However, few have succeeded in gaining teens’ commitment; they are arguably the most non-committal group of consumers out there. This digitally sophisticated generation is increasingly savvy, wary and fickle. However, with huge spending power, teenagers are the consumers of today and of the future. This has resulted in many brands ‘fishing where the fish are’, upping their online presence with YouTube videos, Facebook profiles and multiple digital campaigns. Still, few have been successful in capturing the hearts (and wallets) of this highly sought after group.

According to the Oxford dictionary, ‘Influence’ is defined as ‘The power or ability to affect someone’s beliefs or actions.’ In order to successfully influence someone, it is essential to gain their respect and trust by actively demonstrating you are interested in them and understand them. In the case of most brands, this merely equates to jumping on the latest digital bandwagon. For example, getting onto Twitter just because ‘every other teen is ‘Tweeting’ these days’. Hanging out in teenage hotspots is one thing, but if a brand doesn’t understand teens’ needs and motivations for being there in the first place, success will merely boil down to luck. It’s no wonder so few brands have succeeded with this challenging group of consumers.

In 2009, Ogilvy Malaysia set out to better understand and effectively influence this elusive group, by conducting research specifically to uncover the role of technology in the life of 15-18 year old Malaysian teens.

3 key discoveries were made:

Firstly, the basic needs of teens have largely remained the same throughout the years.

The 5 basic needs of teenagers have been identified as the need for Self-Expression, 24/7 Communication with Peers, Privacy , Self-Achievement and a Sense of Belonging. All these needs are manifestations of a deeper need for Identity Discovery and Development.

A child’s identity is shaped solely by his or her parents. Upon reaching early teenage years, the need to discover and define one’s self emerges . In helping teens discover who they really are, the opinion of peers take precedence over those of their parents. It becomes exceedingly important for teens to belong and be accepted by their peer groups, to ensure they are not perceived as inadequate. This explains certain cult-like tendencies, such as worshipping the same movie stars, wearing the same clothes and rebelling against traditional authority.

The second discovery is that these digital natives cannot imagine life without technology.

Having grown up in a digital world, this generation lives and breathes technology. Perpetually online and connected 24/7, a 16 year old said “The Internet is like oxygen, when my computer doesn’t work I feel like my world has ended.” (Source: Ogilvy Malaysia 2009 research: ‘The Transitory World of Gen C Teens’). Almost half of Malaysian teens interviewed feel more comfortable expressing themselves on MSN instead of in person , and more than half feel naked without their mobile phone (Source: Ogilvy Malaysia 2009 research: ‘The Transitory World of Gen C Teens’) Technology has become a key part of their lifestyle, integrated in just about everything they do.

Finally, most importantly, a new ‘Transitory World’ has emerged as a result of technology.
For the generations of teenagers who had to discover and develop their identity without the benefits of technology, the process of identity discovery and development was a difficult one, often resulting in high social anxiety for fear of ridicule and rejection.

The process of identity discovery and development for teens, before technology

Thanks to technology, a whole new world has emerged for the teens of today, making this process significantly less painful and intimidating. Located in between their private and public worlds, the ‘Transitory World’ is an experimental buffer zone where teens are able to freely explore, express and experiment with the formulation of their identity before taking the giant leap of showcasing this identity in the public world.

Technology has created a ‘Transitory World’ for teens.

Ubiquitous technological platforms such as mobile phones, social networking sites (SNS), instant messengers (IM) and blogs reside in the ‘Transitory World’. The fast, fluid nature of these tech-platforms assist teens in exploring and defining their identity with immediate affirmation.

SNS and blogs provide teens the canvas to easily create material that can be interacted with, commented on and changed quickly. Teens are able to update their online profile and blogs and receive almost instantaneous comments and feedback from friends. Different groupings on IM and private SNS groups help to further reinforce and establish existing peer groups. Mobile phones allow them to constantly keep their friends in the loop, strengthening their sense of belonging. The ‘Transitory World’ helps mitigate the anxiety, embarrassment, and humiliation teens often experienced during the crucial transition from their private world to the public world.

The ‘Transitory World’ is a fertile, safe-haven, where teens are receptive and open-minded. As it is still relatively untapped and uninhabited by brands, there is a huge opportunity for first-movers to greatly influence and impact teenagers. To do this, brands firstly need to realize the existence of such a world. They also need to understand how to best use technology to assist teens in meeting their basic needs, using the right technology platforms to meet their different needs.

In order to successfully optimize the ‘Transitory World’, brands need to know which technology platforms to use to meet the different needs of teens.

By navigating and optimizing the ‘Transitory World’, brands will be finally be able to engage, influence and ‘put a ring’ on this highly prized group of consumers.