Why marketing to young people means more than just an age range | Insights

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Age is just a number: Why youth marketing demands deeper insights than demographics

November 2022

  • Justin Renvoize, Creative Director
  • Ariel Hitchcock, UX Lead
  • James Chutter, Digital Strategist

Whether you’re launching a video game title, a toy line, an interactive app, a YouTube streaming series, or a social media platform like TikTok, you need a young demographic to succeed. After all, young people aren’t just your audience, they're nearly the center of the consumer universe with their disposable income and reserves of free time. As long as you hit the target, the appeal of your product will inevitably take care of the rest, right?

If only youth marketing were quite so easy. The fact is, if your marketing strategy aims for an audience no more specific than “young people,” you’re inevitably going to miss the mark. “Youth” isn’t some monolithic audience with a wealth of shared experiences you can reliably tap into for a given campaign. If anything, a young audience is even more fragmented than market segments drawn from conventional age demographics like 18 to 24. The terms of Gen X, Gen Alpha or Millennials are just classifications that miss the nuance of the motivations and behaviors of a specific audience. The experiences of a 12-year-old can be vastly different from someone who’s 13 or 14. Plus, targeting a population such as children between ages 8 and 12 ignores differences in attention span and cognitive load at either end of the range.

Viewing a youth marketing audience as more than some homogenous mass is just one component of developing a more focused campaign. But even after you've narrowed your target audience, you develop a clearer strategy by looking beyond age and toward something more concrete.

Know who’s buying your product before building any campaign

Regardless of the age group your brand hopes to reach with a product, you need to think beyond its intended audience. More than the ideal user for whatever your brand is marketing, you also need to account for your consumer, who isn’t always the same person.

Imagine you’re creating a video game that targets an audience from 8 to 12 years old. At one end of that range, you have pre-teens who are earning an allowance and are just starting to make their own purchases. But at the other, you have 8-year-olds who clearly don’t have the means to buy anything. To make an impact on your sales goals, you not only need to effectively address 8-year-olds; you also have to motivate them to ask their parents for your product. School-aged kids have a strong influence over their parents, who ultimately hold the budget.

Or, conversely, you can develop a campaign that targets both audiences. Not only do you face the challenge of finding a channel shared by both parents and their children. You also need to thread the needle with a campaign that will appeal to two wildly disparate demographics. In cases like these, the message usually gets so watered down and broad that your marketing doesn’t really reach either group.

At best, a broad “spray-and-pray” effort will raise some awareness for your brand. But ideally, your marketing strategy should also incorporate two additional, more targeted ads: one for the parents, and one for the kids. That way, you can separately target the niches your product needs. But to find the most effective approach for a campaign, you should begin by looking beyond demographic details.

Focusing on motivation forms the basis for successful marketing

When you’re marketing to a young audience, you need to start by drawing a clearer target than a broad but meaningless demographic such as ages 8 to 18. Just as there’s a world of difference between the opposite ends of that range, young people change significantly in the span of a few years. There’s a big difference between the years 12 to 14 and 16 to 18.

Along with shifts in cognitive capabilities, today’s young audiences grow more sophisticated in their use of different digital platforms from year to year. The more specific you can be with the audience your brand is targeting, the more effective your message becomes.

But even after you’ve narrowed your campaign’s focus, you need to look deeper. Fundamentally, marketing to a young audience requires different tactics. Kids are more than just an age group. They’re a series of ebbing and flowing motivations and drivers. As marketers, it’s our job to understand those needs.

When you’re planning a youth-oriented campaign, the right agency will translate your target demographic’s numbers into motivators, triggers, and barriers. For example, a preteen audience may have just discovered game play, so they’re motivated by the feeling of winning. When marketing a game title to that age group, you may look to underscore the possibility of competitive rewards.

For teenagers, however, a sense of belonging grows more important. To stick with gaming, you could use a campaign to underscore the possibilities of playing with friends. For Nintendo’s Switch, one of the strengths is the Joy-Con, which allows the controllers to be detached and shared. Underscoring those social capabilities is one effective way to target an audience that's motivated by a sense of belonging.

Looking beyond age in youth marketing reduces assumptions

Given the realities of marketing to children, brands are better off focusing on the emotions behind using their product. Reducing your audience to just a series of age ranges ultimately introduces some risky assumptions. There’s a danger in assuming everyone within a given demographic has the same experiences and interests, regardless of their age.

Honing in on your audience’s motivations helps skirt those tendencies. Motivators help a creative team start to craft stories for your customers and make informed decisions about meaningful visuals. By contrast, coming to your agency with the goal to target kids ages six to eight or Latinx women with your product offers no real actionable insights.

Determining the motivations of your customer is more art than science. After investigating some broader statements about kids of certain ages, your agency can test those assumptions to discover their value. But realistically, you also have to look at your brand and consider the motivators it’s tapping into.

Attracting a young audience may be a top priority for your brand, but thinking in such broad terms is no more useful than trying to create a campaign targeting all adults. To generate real results, you have to first narrow your focus to determine the customer you really need. But to make a real impact on your goals, you need to then dig deeper to find what your customer really needs as well.