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Engaging and Marketing to Youth in Canada

I Forever Young

Youth are generally defined as being between the ages of 10 to 29. This large age range is often further divided into four five-year cohorts for more specificity, however there are some broad "macro" tendencies that apply to the entire age range. For example, consider this: How old is someone who is online all the time, likes movies, has a cell phone and sends text messages with it, is in school but working part time, is unmarried, has a vague idea about their future, is childless, drinks beer, has sex, and lives at home?

These days, this person could be 15 or 25! The difference between the two may be in the level of sophistication. For instance, a 15-year old may download mp3 files, while a 25-year old may download DivX movies. The 15-year old may buy a Tim's double-double while a 25 year old may drink brewed specialty coffee!

In general, although people in this age range have some responsibility (e.g., jobs, caring for younger siblings) and a great deal of freedom, a full undertaking of responsibility (moving out, paying bills, etc.) comes much later than in previous generations.

Here are some numbers from Health Canada and Statistics Canada that demonstrate the trend:

* Average age of first intercourse is 16 (down from last generation)

* Average age at graduation is 26 (up from last generation)

* Average age of first marriage is 29 (up from last generation)

* Average age of first childbirth is 29 (up from last generation)

* 67 percent of unmarried 20 to 24 year olds live at home

II Communication Comfort Zone: Use Every Channel

Today's youth are very comfortable with all kinds of technology and they highly value communication, especially fast communication. For example, they will not wait for a slow website -- they will find the information elsewhere.

It is not news that Internet use is a great way to accommodate this desire for fast information and communication in a way that allows for individuality. However, traditional mass media is not inert either. Youth attention can be garnered with a combination of multiple channels. For instance, TV advertising is essential for credibility and status, while other mediums, such as text messaging, are necessary to move youth through the action steps.

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III Getting Up Close and Personal

Present-day youth are particularly interested in bringing a personal connection to technology instead of viewing it as a separate entity. For instance they think of cell phones as a way to communicate and not just a piece of shiny metal. This "rehumanization" or "putting flesh to metal" trend includes customization of technology (e.g., customizing ring tones in a cell phone), viscerality, that is looking for things that hit them in the gut instead of in their head (e.g., the wild success of karaoke as a result of full participation from crowds vs. simply dancing to recorded music) and the rejection of larger corporate entities in favour of smaller, more independent-feeling organizations.

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IV Friends: The New Family

Eighty percent of youth come from families with only one or two children at home. These numbers are slightly lower in major urban centers. This has resulted in a strong youth emphasis on relationships with friends and a greater reliance on friends overall. In general, friends are becoming family.

The high importance youth place on their friendships mean that it is important to focus on the power of word-of mouth advertising. Interpersonal communications can be a highly effective medium to convey a message. There are a number of ways to enhance and direct interpersonal communications among youth to get your message out.

1. Create opportunities to talk with them instead of talking to them. For example, provide web space where they can reinforce their individuality through blogs and discussion boards. Give them the information, let them draw their conclusions, and be open to opposing views.

2. Get key influencers on your side. Key influencers are the most culturally knowledgeable individuals. By finding out who these people are, and engaging them in creative ways in the places where they congregate (e.g., an independent music store, a specific coffee shop, a live music venue, a niche magazine), you can kick start dissemination of your message as they pass it on for you.

Note: Canadian culture has also come to be defined in terms of emphases and policies such as bilingualism and multiculturalism (Bibby, 2001). Canadian youth are, therefore, gradually becoming colour blind due to the influx of immigration in recent years. So, the target youth and their key influencers may not necessarily share the same ethnic background.

3. Create opportunities for viral marketing (a friend telling a friend). Consider Burton Snowboards ( This company promotes the brand only to youth who are tapped into snow boarding culture. The website provides a variety of communication opportunities for this special group of hard-core snow boarders via niche magazines, special ads, discussion boards, blogs, etc., to create buzz about the brand. This concentrated audience then expands the consumer circle based solely on their association with the brand.

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V Penny for Their Thoughts

Today's youth have a "save-to-spend" mentality. They have less financial responsibility resulting from staying at home and more disposable income as they get their money from a variety of sources such as part-time work, parents, grandparents, and step-parents. This six-pocket syndrome gives youth more money to spend on food, fashion, and fun than any of the previous generations. However, over 50% of youth are concerned about the lack of money. (Bibby, 2001).

Due to the importance that youth place on money, consider paying youth a nominal amount for their participation in your health issue or campaign. For example, the campaign engaged teens throughout the campaign development process; sometimes paying as low as $100 for a month of ad hoc work.

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VI Bigger Bang with Big Brands

Most social marketing campaigns run on tight budgets and have no money to implement the really creative ideas that are necessary to get noticed among competitors like Nintendo and MuchMusic. Your best bet is to partner with a company or a brand that has already done the job of getting youth attention. For instance, a drinking and driving campaign could team up with a brand that is immersed in youth culture, like Jones Soda (, to organize an alcohol-free event. The health promotion issue that may have at first seemed boring to youth may have greater appeal when partnered with a brand with which youth widely identify.

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VII Light, But Not Lightweight

Youth are definitely aware of the world but are certainly not overwhelmed by it. In the face of family problems, economic and educational disadvantages, and tough social times, teens have shown a remarkable ability to both maintain an optimistic outlook and "land on their feet" (Bibby, 2001).

Given their positive outlook, it is important to not be too serious, even when you are talking about a serious issue. Youth appreciate messaging that is light-hearted in tone. Consider Burger King's The website is highly visual and is definitely unusual. In fact, the actual message is so buried that it is almost subliminal. The site succeeds in getting youth talking about the brand. The idea is to grab their attention first and then talk about your issue. Another example of an "attention first and content later" strategy is the campaign ( developed by the Ontario Government in collaboration with Youthography, a youth advisory panel and communications agency Bensimon Byrne to prevent smoking among Ontario's youth. marketing involves irreverent ads on Much Music involving youth themselves, co-promotions with Much Music, and a series of concerts involving top hip hop and punk rock artists.

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VIII A State of Flux

Youth are increasingly swaying between developments in technology, entertainment, and their value system as a whole. They are constantly in a mode of experimentation between what has been developed and what is in the process of being developed. This 'transition' trend allows youth to change the way culture and information is consumed to suit their worldview. For example, a larger number of youth endorse finding their own religion and defining their spirituality (42%) as opposed to the notion of going to a church, synagogue or mosque (24.8%) (Youthography, 2004).

Youth culture is, therefore, constantly changing. The best way to keep abreast of changing youth trends and values is to involve youth at the earliest possible juncture in your program in ways that are consistent with their values and skills. Everything boils down to one constant in any communication campaign: "Always Listen To Your Audience."

IX References

Bibby, R. (2001). Canada's Teens: Today, Yesterday, and Tomorrow. Stoddart: Toronto, Canada.

Youthography (2004). Toronto: Canada. Note on Methodology: Youthography conducted a national survey of 1480, 13-29 year olds in the spring of 2004 to learn more about the values, ideas and concepts that are integral to youth culture.