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Why you need to stop talking AT youth audiences

crowd of people with arms up, some wit phones up, several colourful smoke cannons/flares are overhead and some being held. The smoke is yellow, blue and pink
Photo courtesy of Unsplash

You don’t need to go far to find scaremongering when it comes to engaging youth audiences. The tropes ‘digital native’, ‘hard to reach’ with short attention spans and only interested in TikToks will make it easy to believe young people are near alien-like in their communications composition.

This, of course, plays into the idea that it’s not your communications that’s the problem – it’s the youth of today! But how can you effectively engage younger audiences? Having worked on several projects alongside and for young people, here’s a few ideas to get you started.

You’re not the target audience and you also need to really target

For some of us – including myself as an elder millennial – the memories of adolescence and early adulthood are becoming ever distant. One of the biggest mistakes when it comes to communicating with audiences younger than yourself, is inserting your memory or perception of what youth is today.

This is also really important to remember when outlining campaign concepts and approaches internally, as it’s not meant to engage your senior team – it isn’t for them. What you absolutely must do therefore, is ensure that you’ve sought to be specific in regards to which part of a ‘youth’ audience you’re trying to target, and listened to and tested approaches with them.

‘Youth’ is also an enormous bracket and another common stumbling block when used as a label for the audience you’re targeting. Either the age bracket is very broad, what an 11-year-old might engage with will massively vary from that of a 21-year-old for example, or you’re simply not being specific enough within a demographic. Really understand what defines the audience you’re trying to reach or you risk trying to speak to everyone and engaging no one.

TIP #1

Define the specific audience within that broad term of ‘Youth’ and get as much information about them, ideally directly from some, to shape your communications strategy. As you understand that audience, it should guide your campaign development and help you avoid projecting your own, or leaders’ perception of what young people want.

Cool for what?

Another common trip up is thinking anything targeting youth has to be deemed as ‘cool’ by young people for it to land. Cue graphics using graffiti, poor replica campaigns trying to speak like Hypebeast and mirror aesthetics from Vans, or politicians making bizarre TikToks (I know you’ve seen them!). You’re trying too hard to be cool and forgetting what the communications need to do.

There is value in meeting young people where they are and understanding how to be relevant to them. But what’s key to respect is how you genuinely offer value within their ecosystem and ultimately, what they need and expect from you.

Engaging youth audiences with your communications, does not mean you have to completely forget all the usual principles of what good communications strategies look like (sorry). So while you may look to use different or emerging channels and try new things, the approach of really understanding where your engagement sits in your audiences’ ecosystem and testing your messages with them are still a sure fire way of landing them.

TIP #2

Understand what they expect from you and how your communications will land with them. Stress testing messages, tone of voice and language can all be helpful to understand if your communications will land in the way in which you expect and deliver the action you’re hoping for.

Get real and be real about your measurement and evaluation

Expecting a youth audience to flock to sign up to your newsletter or engage with all your content can often kill a communications campaign before it’s even started. Getting your measurement and evaluation framework informed by your target audience will help you align relevant goals for your campaign.

Metrics that are based on action that is relevant to your audience will contribute to a campaign that works harder for your audience. The AMEC framework is a great tool to use once you’ve gained some insight from your target audience. It will challenge you to map out what good would really look like and then ways in which you’ll map out activities to achieve it and how you can measure throughout to understand if you’re getting there.

TIP #3

Once you understand what your audience expects from you (Tip #2), map out the measures you believe are realistic to expect from your target audience and track them back to what your inputs and activities are – are you likely to achieve a shift in attitude, or an action based on what you know? What value are you adding to your audience, have you used a behavioural change approach or are you just hoping for more ‘awareness’?!

Talk don’t tell

It’s far too easy to slip into the habit of telling youth audiences what to do and how to behave. It stems from a power imbalance where young people typically have less power in society; told what to do at school, don’t have the power to vote until they’re 18, are less financially secure, most likely to have less job security than all other demographics – the list goes on.

But this is perhaps one of the biggest failings that I see with youth campaigns. From the health messages during the pandemic around ‘don’t kill your granny’ to the anti-drugs campaigns of past extolling ‘just say no!’. They scream of not understanding or respecting young peoples’ context; what’s going on for them, how are they feeling towards something, what contributes to their existing patterns of behaviour?

And while we’re talking of respect, at any point where you’re working with young people to improve your campaign, it’s vital you structure that engagement in the right way. Don’t go with two fully developed ideas and ask which they prefer just so you can say, “Young people were involved!” Because if you truly valued their input, you’d have set out a plan for developing the work with them throughout the process – start to finish. That doesn’t mean you can’t uphold what’s realistic within your brand style, or feasible within your budget and time. But as a process, you can set out what say they’ll have, how much you can act on, demonstrate you’ve respected what they’ve said and of course paid them, or respected their time with a voucher and a good experience too.

TIP #4

Where you can, use insights, youth groups/panels/boards, to inform your work and really understand the issue or challenge you’re trying to tackle with your communications. This will inform your messages, tone of voice and help you avoid sounding like a cranky boomer within your campaigns.

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