While it’s true that many adults hang out on MySpace, use text messaging (notably in Europe and Asia because it’s cheaper than voice), and of course rely on email as a main form of communication, evolutionary leaps in digital messaging tend to be driven, in large part by the youth market. This has been backed up by recent research showing how particularly ingrained such technology is in the personal lives of young people – and underlines the importance of utilizing such technologies when marketing to these consumers. A joint study by MTV, Nickelodeon, and Microsoft found that kids, teens, and young adults around the world – ranging from age 8 to 24 – are avid users of email, text-messaging, and social sites that foster even more digital communication. For example, the study says, 85 percent of Dutch youth say they ”can’t live without email.”
Such research illustrates the importance of using digital marketing with this coveted demographic but actually being able to successfully do so is another matter entirely. Consider, for example, parental fears of online safety and monetary charges for unwanted messages, not to mention legal issues. One can’t simply spam kids’ email addresses, unless one wants to run afoul of laws regulating spam, privacy, and child protection. Meanwhile it might be easy to entice youths to send texts to a short code advertised on their favorite toy’s package or candy wrapper – but it’s not so easy to deal with angry parents who have to foot the cell phone bill. And social network sites offer the opportunity to get users to sign up for yet more emails and SMS messages, but the hype surrounding them must still be examined.
Digital marketing to teens is far from child’s play. Different aspects of it – email, SMS, online ads on hot sites like social networks – have their strengths but also their weaknesses. The best campaign implements all platforms while avoiding their pitfalls. This series, ”All The Kids Are Doing It,” tells marketers what to keep in mind if they want to reach young consumers digitally and effectively.
Part 1: Email
As noted in the study, email is still a very important form of communication within the youth sector and therefore email campaigns are vital to any successful digital marketing effort to reach this group. However, given the sheer amount of scrutiny surrounding minors’ email addresses, this has to be done via strict permission-based methods.
Then there are the gatekeepers–not firewalls or employer Internet censorship, but something more formidable: Parents. They have to deal with scary news stories about online predators lurking behind every IP address, the possibility of ”undesirable” content reaching their offspring’s eyes, or worries about junk mail overload. Understandably, moms and dads are going to want companies to assuage these concerns.
Certain online brands cater to parents’ demand that their permission be secured before a child is allowed to participate on these sites and to subscribe to receive messages. (Demographic information can be used to send specific, targeted messages to the email address the child provides.) Such sites also reveal exactly what they plan to do with personal information, like the types of emails that will be sent. One notable brand is the educational/networking website imbee, which encourages teachers and parents to monitor a child’s usage of the site. imbee asks not just for a parent’s name and addresses (both email and physical). It also asks for a valid credit card number, to be used as proof of parental consent before activating an account. Parents who don’t have a credit card can instead provide their phone number to imbee for verification.
Sites that secure parental permission for email subscriptions aren’t just altruistic. They’re following the law. The 1998 U.S. Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prohibits the collection or use of the personal information of people under age 13 without a parent’s or guardian’s consent. Marketers beware: Authorities are keen to punish lawbreakers who misuse a child’s personal information that was given, say, in order to subscribe to receive emails. For example, the U.S. Federal Trade Commission fined Xanga $1 million for letting under-13s use its blogging/networking service without parental consent.
Besides federal law, marketers must also be aware of state statutes. Michigan and Utah have measures that go beyond COPPA and deal expressly with emails to minors. In 2005 they put into effect registries on which parents, schools, and other institutions and organizations could list emails to which minors have access. Both states make it illegal to send certain content – including information about gambling, pornography, tobacco, alcohol, and drugs of all kinds – to any email placed on these registries. Marketers, then, must make sure they check their databases against these registries; they can pay for a monthly service to do this (rates vary based on volume and the registry being access). Of course, any savvy digital marketer wouldn’t be sending such content in the first place if trying to specifically reach the youth demographic. Still, this could be an issue in the case of larger campaigns that might be directed to a wide audience.
With so many legal and parental concerns, marketers might decide not to get mixed up in email marketing to youths. At the very least, though, email messaging is a proven part of an overall campaign geared toward young audiences – like the promotion used to spread the word about a Hilary Duff CD a few years back. And note that, according to a recent MediaPost article, 89 percent of teenagers have email addresses they check regularly. That’s a lot of young people waiting to hear more about their favorite brands.
Next time: SMS.
Eydie Cubarrubia, Marketing Communications Manager