By now, I think it’s pretty clear to most of us in media that if you want to know what adults will be doing and thinking in a couple of years, follow a high school or college student around.
That was the premise behind “The Bedroom Project” four years ago, and its outcomes foretold many of the mega-trends that we now know to be true. The rise of the cellphone, the ubiquity of social media, disappearing radios, and the competition for entertainment in the car were all key takeaways from our ethnographic collaboration with Arbitron.
Now, a new study from the research firm Nielsen Norman Group called “College Students on the Web” suggests that continuing to follow the attitudes and opinions of young people about digital media isn’t just important – it is critical in understanding how marketers will connect their brands with the consuming public.
The notion is that college students see the world of social media sites like Facebook as a place to connect and hang out with one another – not a place to be spammed with advertisements.
But as the CEO of Trendline Interactive, Morgan Stewart (pictured), recently wrote in MediaPost, marketers often make the mistake of assuming that because there is a mass audience on Facebook (or MySpace or YouTube), this is a community that is ripe and open to their advertising messages. Just because they are “there” doesn’t necessarily mean they wish to connect to us.
We got a glimpse of this in last year’s Tech Survey VI when we asked those using social media sites (80% of the overall sample) whether they are fans, friends, and/or followers of the station that sent them the survey.
Overall for marketers and brand managers, the realities of the college student mentality are worth some strategizing. As the study suggests, young people value the feedback from their friends about products and events. But perhaps instead of simply using the cold “Share this” technique, Stewart offers something more relatable:
Another point that Stewart highlights is the notion that young consumers make distinctions between companies they perceive as honest and those that try to trick them. This puts pressure on social media usage by any brand that truly wants to carve out a solid, meaningful relationship with consumer communities. They “get” that advertising is part of the price as long as the differences between content and commerce are clear.
Finally, there’s the clutter piece. Young people have become experts at the quick search – whether it’s a song, a restaurant or anything else. If the first place they look is a black hole or filled with ads, they will quickly move to a site where they can get the answers and resources they need.
Creating an environment where content and answers are clear, and where clutter and ads are minimized or made more user-friendly is a key to keeping young people engaged. Radio is fighting this battle with its clusters of commercials, while Pandora and other pure-play Internet outlets are trying to find just the right balance.
We will continue to research this space in our upcoming Tech Survey VII later this quarter. The marriage of social media, brands, and consumers is an exciting new opportunity for media. How we handle and grow that relationship could be an important piece of the revenue and entertainment pie.