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Teens Inhabit 'Digital Marketing Ecosystem,' Research Suggests

Shannon Proudfoot
Vancouver Sun
August 25, 2009

Today's teens inhabit a "digital marketing ecosystem" where their identities and interactions are virtually inseparable from the logos stamped all over them, new research suggests.

"It becomes a part of how they communicate with their friends," says Kathryn Montgomery, a communications professor at American University in Washington, D.C. "If they're incorporating brands into their profiles and communicating those with their friends, if the companies are inserting the products into the games young people play, if they're part of the use of mobile technology so there's a brand presence that follows their every move — that is creating a new kind of intimacy."

And while plenty of adults now spend most of their waking hours attached to some type of technology, Montgomery says teens are a uniquely perfect audience for this type of ubiquitous electronic messaging. Many take their cellphones to bed so they don't miss a texting opportunity, she says, and social networking sites like Facebook are tailor-made for the adolescent developmental stage of trying on different identities and sorting out which ones fit.

The brain doesn't reach full maturity until the early 20s and one of the puzzle pieces missing in adolescence is impulse control — a fact that will come as no surprise to any parent of a teen, she says.

That's another characteristic that makes teens a digital marketer's dream, Montgomery says, and they exploit it to maximum effect with such promotions as a video game that pops open a website for real-life pizza delivery whenever a player types 'pizza' within the game.

"They are especially attuned to and perhaps vulnerable to this kind of marketing," she says. "There's a tendency for people to think they're cynical and savvy and they understand it all, but what was so interesting to me about that research is that they are not necessarily as well defended against marketing as people might think they are."

Another aspect of the "unprecedented intimacy" between marketers and teens are the social networking websites themselves, she says. They provide a vast cache of demographic and taste-making information unimaginable to advertisers a decade or two ago, she says, allowing marketers to virtually eavesdrop and seek out the "brand sirens" who lead trends and influence the widest social circles.

"It's not like a parent has to say, 'Yes, my kid can be involved in a focus group,'" says Montgomery, whose study is published in the Journal of Adolescent Health. "The whole thing is a focus group."

And the cutting-edge techniques marketers deploy on these young "digital natives" today will be targeting the rest of us tomorrow, she says.

"Digital media are so different from television," she says. "It's not something you sit down and watch, it's something that's really integrated into every aspect of your daily life — for all of us, but for kids definitely."

But plugged in doesn't mean tuned in, says Paul Cubbon, a marketing instructor at the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business. The click-through rates for branded advertisements on social networking sites are very low, he says, suggesting that young people may be flocking to the sites but ignoring the marketing — just as people have tuned out boring TV commercials for decades.

"We're known for as long as branded communication has been around that you can't just shout at people, you have to interest and engage and entertain them," Cubbon says. "Most advertising online is still pretty much an announcement, it's noise."






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