How to Market to Teens: Keep It Real and Simple

Teens continue to spend money, but they aren't parting with their cash for just anything, anywhere. If you want a piece of this $80 billion pie, you have to know how to ask for it.

According to a recent report from market research publisher Packaged Facts, approximately 25.6 million teens live in the United States today, and in 2006 they spent nearly $80 billion dollars on food, apparel, personal-care items, entertainment and other items. Despite a slight decline in the teen population over the next few years, "The Teens Market in the U.S." report predicts that teen spending will grow an estimated 3.5 percent annually, climbing to $91.1 billion in 2011.

Where are teens spending their cash? More than a quarter of them are spending it online, with that figure expected to rise, according to the report. Similarly, the survey found that roughly a third of teens now considered the Internet their primary source of entertainment.

Those statistics have a lot of online retailers and entertainment providers seeing dollar signs. But if you want to cash-in on the teen buying trend, you need to know how to market to this notoriously fickle, attention-strapped audience. To help provide that insight, spoke with two successful teen/young adult-focused online businesses and a leading marketer for the 14-24-year-old demographic to uncover the basic rules of teen marketing.

Rule #1: Be Authentic
"The biggest piece of advice I could give anyone marketing to teens is be who you are," said Greg Selkoe, the founder and CEO of Karmaloop, an online retailer of urban clothing and streetwear. "We've been really successful because we're authentic. We're all pretty young [Selkoe is the oldest member of the Karmaloop team at 32] and consider ourselves part of the culture we market to, which is streetwear culture. Our director of grass roots marketing is 19 years old. So we're very close to our audience and understand our audience, and I think that makes a huge difference," Selkoe said.

Karmaloop aims to sell urban street clothing to cutting-edge teens.

That word, "authentic," may be the buzzword when it comes to marketing or selling to teens.

When asked for his opinion on how to market to teens, Craig Sherman, the CEO of Gaia Online, a fast-growing hangout for teens on the Web, with two million unique visitors a month, immediately used the "A" word. The founders of Gaia Online, who initially built the community for themselves and their friends, "built something that was truly authentic," Sherman said. "They were trying to build an online hangout for teens, the equivalent of what the mall was 20 years ago," he said. And they succeeded.

And what does Sherman, who described himself as "the old guy in the room," mean by "authentic"? In addition to staffing your business with folks who "get it" and who aren't much older than their users (Gaia's main copywriter is in his early 20s and the average staffer is 26), it means being "open, honest and direct with users, about what [you're] trying to achieve," he said.

Gaia Online looks to appeal to teens by providing them a hangout on the Web.

Brandon Evans, the managing director of RepNation Media, who has worked with a lot of brands on how to generate buzz among teens and has created many successful campaigns targeted at young adults, agrees. "You have to be honest and upfront with what you're doing," he said. "And you shouldn't sucker [teens], in any way, into deals where they're providing credit cards and other information without knowing what they're getting involved in."

Rule #2: Create Some Buzz
As for how to reach teens where they live or play, Karmaloop's Selkoe is a big believer in grass roots marketing. For Selkoe, his strategy was born out of necessity, as he didn't have the cash for a splashy marketing campaign. Instead he simply went around to family and friends, talking up the business, being honest (or "authentic") about what he was trying to accomplish with Karmaloop, and asking everyone he knew if they could tell, e-mail or text their friends to check out the site and buy something.

"In a lot of ways, that's the best way to do your marketing," Selkoe said. "Spend as little as humanly possible and rely on generating buzz. We've really just enlisted our consumers as our marketers." And the strategy worked. In fact, everyone affiliated with Karmaloop is part of the company's grass roots marketing campaign, going to parties, clubs and events frequented by the company's core demographic, talking up Karmaloop and handing out free flyers, stickers and other fun freebies.

RepNation Media uses a similar approach in helping clients market to young adults. "A lot of what we do is what we call brand ambassador and influencer networks, where we'll identify influencers in a particular demographic, recruit them, and then work closely with them to help them spread the message to their friends and their peers," Evans said.

"Whether it's getting a product into their hands, providing them with a special deal that they can distribute to friends, getting them to sample and provide feedback on a site, it's about working closely with a tight knit group of people, and providing them tools, online or offline, so they can spread the message to their friends," he said.

A big part of creating buzz and getting customer buy-in involves making them feel special — offering exclusive information and/or deals for those willing to opt-into e-mail lists.

Karmaloop, for example, features a box on every page of its Web site that offers visitors $10 if they sign up for the company's free e-mail newsletter. And that's just the beginning of the VIP treatment. "People who are on the e-mail list are treated specially," Selkoe said. "In return for agreeing to join our e-mail list, we give them special deals and offers... like 15 percent off or free shipping."

As a result, Karmaloop's opt-in-only e-mail list contains 300,000 names and e-mail addresses, making it "a very powerful list," Selkoe said. "If we send out an e-mail it's going to generate $20,000 to $30,000 worth of sales automatically for us, like, that day."

Another great way to get teens to visit and buy from your site is by running on-site contests and/or promotions. (Karmaloop has a "CONTESTS!" link on its left-hand navigation bar and often partners with other sites, which has brought in additional traffic.)

Rule #3: Keep Your Message Simple
"Teens have a very short attention span," said RepNation Media's Evans. "They're often multitasking: watching TV, reading e-mail, on IM, doing lots of different things. So you really need to catch their attention in a short, concise way." If you're using e-mail marketing and you "provide them with a lot of text, a lot of things to read, a lot of different things they need to click on and do [like music and video clips], you risk losing them before they see your main message," he said.

To create an effective e-mail campaign, you really need to decide what your main message or offer is, and then "put it in the forefront, and make it as simple and straightforward as possible," said Evans. Video and audio clips, even lots of graphics, while fun or attractive, can actually distract viewers, causing them to delete or close your e-mail before they've even clicked on the offer or visited your site.

Rule #4: Engage Your Visitors and Solicit Feedback
One of the keys to both Karmaloop's and Gaia Online's success is that both companies actively engage and solicit feedback from their teenage/young adult customers. "Virtually every feature on Gaia has been built in response to our users asking for that feature and then us going and building it," Sherman said. "And if we build something and the users don't like it, we change it."

That's why last December, when Gaia wanted to change the look and feel of its home page, it posted a version of the new page on one of its message boards and asked users for feedback. Within the first 24 hours, 19,000 users responded. "And they had really intelligent, articulate, insightful suggestions for improvements," Sherman said. Gaia's Web developers used the feedback in the redesign. As a result, the redesign took a bit longer, but "they [Gaia's users] made it better. And more users came to the site as a result."

Rule #5: Don't Forget About the Parents
While everyone we spoke with warned against marketing to parents when trying to attract a teen audience, all agreed it was important to be sensitive to parents, especially when it came to using their credit cards.

"We have a certain threshold for a charge," Selkoe said. "If someone charges over $300, we're going to call that customer and ask to speak to the cardholder," he said. Most of the time, parents are OK with the charge, he said. But if they're not, Karmaloop will refund them their money. "Our goal is to always make our customers happy."

While not specifically aimed at parents, Karmaloop's Wish List feature, for example, gives users the capability to "create a whole list of the stuff they want and then e-mail their parents the link," said Selkoe. Parents know what to buy, how much each item costs and can buy it for their child.

It All Comes Down to Providing Good Value
For Sherman, it all comes down to offering consumers (no matter how old they are) something of value, which could be a great product or service that they can't get any place else, a way to save them time or money, a unique form of entertainment or peace of mind.

"With teens it's harder than ever to sell them something [if they don't consider it] really valuable," Sherman said. "The age of pure mass market, one-size-fits-all, has gone away. Teens have [and want] more options than they ever had before. Therefore you have to offer a product or service that helps them to express themselves in a way that is unique and customized — that speaks — to that individual."

For Karmaloop, which has been around since 1999, the goal has always been to carry the clothing brands that teens want — cutting edge, urban streetwear — and to give its customers reasons to frequent the site and tell their friends about it.

"Every day we have new items, and we probably change the home page once or twice a week," said Karmaloop CEO Selkoe. Freshness and maintaining an edge is important to young adults, especially in the online apparel business. "With fashion that's considered edgy or unique [as well as with teens], things get old quick."

Jennifer Lonoff Schiff is a regular contributor to

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