The acceleration of community website MySpace's user base beyond 100m, buoyed principally by the youth market, is a clear indication of the dramatic change that has occurred in the way marketers can target young people.
The task of engaging with a media-savvy youth market - always a fickle and difficult-to-reach demographic - has been made all the more complex by the plethora of media platforms available, specifically digital media.
The shift has left brands that have traditionally held the attention of the younger generation, such as MTV, struggling to hold sway over an audience that has evolved as fast as the technology that feeds it.
'Young people are more aware of the world around them because of the internet. Brands get greater exposure and young people can gain and share information more freely,' says Alison Fennah, executive director of the European Interactive Advertising Association (EIAA), and a speaker at Marketing's Youth Perspective Conference next month.
Richard Helyar, marketing and ad sales manager at Channel 4, also a speaker at the conference, adds that greater exposure to brands means young consumers expect more from them and recognise instantly if they are being sold to. 'Young people demand that brands behave in a transparent way,' he says. 'They must be open, honest and credible, and on a level with their target audience.'
The change in the way young people consume media reflects a wider shift in their relationship with brands.
'Their entire outlook has changed, and they have a stronger need for experience and interaction,' says James Layfield, managing director of experiential agency The Lounge, which specialises in the youth market. 'The 16- to 24-year-old age group is spending seven fewer hours a week watching TV, and they are spending those hours actively involving themselves with brands.'
The number of channels now available to connect with a youth audience means it is vital for brands to know where these consumers are spending their time so they can ensure they have a presence there. This is attracting more brands to digital channels as well as to experiential activity.
'We are always challenging our thinking about the way we market our shows, and embracing social networks such as Bebo,' says Helyar. 'Online as an audio/visual medium is the obvious choice for promotion of TV shows. We are not just placing ads on these sites, we are trying to engage people there too.'
One method is to post clips from upcoming series to encourage young people to share them with friends and thus promote the show. 'If you get it right, your audience will do all the leg work, which adds all-important credibility to your campaign,' explains Helyar.
In the run-up to this summer's World Cup, the broadcaster posted viral clips on social networks, as well as using TV trailers, to promote Sven: the Cash, the Coach and his Lovers -More4's spoof documentary on then-England manager Sven Goran Eriksson. It is also using this strategy to promote shows targeting 16- to 24-year-olds in its autumn schedule, including The Charlotte Church Show and sketch show Blunder.
Peer-to-peer networking is a vital part of a successful youth campaign, according to Mark Mullen, head of communications at HSBC, who believes it is more important than an online presence. 'I am yet to be convinced by digital as a medium,' he says. 'Of our young customers, 70%-80% take action online, but this doesn't necessarily mean it is the most effective way to engage with them. For us, word of mouth is key.'
Young people's desire to be involved with brands means that experiential marketing has become a highly effective means of connecting with them.
'Young people want to interact with brands and create something,' says Fennah. 'They don't just expect brands to be "cool", they expect them to give something back.' She cites a Radio 1 initiative that enabled people to create their own selection of tunes from its site, and then set up a link to it on their MySpace page.
Layfield points out that youth-oriented campaigns require careful groundwork. For Samsung, The Lounge conducted research for a campaign among 1000 18- to 30-year-olds, which found that students would be motivated by a music connection. The resulting activity drove students to engage with the mobile-handset manufacturer online by running a competition offering the prize of an exclusive gig by band The Bravery at the winner's university.
It is also crucial for a brand to choose the right platform to reach its audience. 'There is no such thing as an average 16- to 24-year-old,' says Helyar. 'We conducted a study into youth behaviour that grouped young people into 23 "tribes". We pick out the ones we think we have a chance to engage with. Marketers need to choose the right channels and tone of voice.'
However, simply pouring money into activity does not guarantee success. 'Coca-Cola had a great idea to use online user-generated content to create an ad,' says Helyar. 'But it added restrictions on the language that could be used, which contradicted the power of freedom of expression that is intrinsic with online work.'
There are also fundamental structural problems within many companies, which are only slowly taking on board interactive and digital solutions, and remain geared toward traditional advertising. 'Companies need to embrace a much more dynamic way of working,' says Fennah. 'Change within the industry will take both time and education'.
If marketers are to truly gain the attention and respect of the youth market, they will need to follow the lead of cutting-edge brands, such as MySpace, and seize on the abundant opportunities to engage young people as individuals.
DATA FILE - CONFERENCE
Date: 31 October
Venue: The Congress Centre, London
Speakers include: Jamie Kantrowitz, senior vice-president marketing Europe, MySpace; Julie Davidson, director of marketing, Levi Strauss; Mark Mullen, director of marketing communications, HSBC; Richard Helyar, marketing and ad sales manager, Channel 4; Michelle James, director of marketing, Youth Music; Helen Hewitt, consumer product marketing manager, Lonely Planet; Richard Teversham, EMEA director of marketing and platform, Xbox; Sally Scott, director of marketing, Selfridges; Simon Lloyd, head of marketing, Nokia; Alison Fennah, executive director, EIAA; Michael Smith, deputy director of digital media, COI; Fiona Bosman, touch point marketing manager, Red Bull; Rufus Radcliffe, head of marketing, Channel 4.
To book a delegate place
Contact Caroline Kelly
Tel 020 8267 4011