Top Teen Insights & Trends For 2011

A lot has happened this year and teens have taken notice. World events, economic pressures, personal milestones, friends, education and brands all play big roles in influencing the lives of teens. Teens are evolving and maturing as fast as the technologies and platforms we build around them.

We caught up with 300, 13-19-year-old teens in an online discussion to talk to them about the technologies, platforms and brands they used over the course of the year, with their responses offering fresh insights into who they are. The following narrative represents insights gleaned from more than 4,500 individual responses:

2011: A Year Of Personal Sacrifices

No longer insulated by parents doling out discretionary funds, teens are not only reacting to the pressures felt by their cashed-strapped parents, but are helping to take on the responsibility through part time jobs and making their own sacrifices on personal spending. Billed as “The Lost Generation,” the unemployment rate of a teen is double that of an adult (20% by some measures; NPR, 2011), which leads to teens adopting many of the cost-saving measures they glean from their parents.

“My parents have been more honest with me in terms of our budget this year and I’m constantly stressed that we might not be able to afford groceries the next month. It’s not something I’ve been able to deal with because there isn’t anywhere near me hiring 16 year olds.” – Female, 16, CA

Like Their Parents, Teens Are Savvy Mobile Users

Much of the coupon-redeeming, price-comparing and loyalty-point-aggregating activity marketers have witnessed among adults around Black Friday/Cyber Monday is actually taking place among teens, as well. Roughly 30% of teens wielded smart phones during 2011, with estimates that 2012 will bring 50% adoption levels (Consumer Reports, 2011). The top shopping apps mentioned among teens in our discussion forum included Amazon mobile for scanning, Foursquare for check-in discounts, Old Navy’s Snap Appy, Seventeen, Red Laser and ShopKick. A surprising number of teens expressed interest in using apps to learn about local deals at restaurants, as well as redeeming offers from Groupon and LivingSocial.

“I use QR code technology to scan for details while in-store, and my barcode scanner to check prices in-store.” – Male, 16, FL

We asked our teens to define a “dream” mobile app that currently does not exist. Yes, we received a lot of ridiculous answers (e.g., one that prints out million dollar bills), however, a central theme began to unfold: teens are looking for hyper-personalized utility. It is not enough to simply help them pick out a new outfit to wear–our teens mentioned needing help deciding among items in their own closets. More than just friend recommendations, they asked for apps that offered suggested products based upon the likes/interests found in their own social profiles.

Also, the opportunity for a brand to step up as an ally of all things education is huge. Across dozens of posts, we found that teens are seeking a mobile solution for keeping track of their homework assignments, grades, high school sporting events and to-do lists. In 2012, there’s a viable opportunity for marketers to uncover what the next level of customization means for this generation, and find ways to add utility to their high school experiences.

“My app would be for school. It would record everything my teachers say, save it in sections and organize everything.” – Male, 15, IL

Teens Are Native Users Of Virtual Currency

Gamification continues to grow among teens, as it provides them with a way of earning points and virtual currency in an entertaining format. 43% of teens have spent real dollars on in-game virtual items or virtual currency. With the total US market for virtual goods at just over $2 billion in 2011 (Inside Virtual Goods, 2011), it is no wonder that brands are finding ways to leverage this currency as an incentive. Teens flock to games such as Cityville (Over 55 million active users, #1 game on Facebook in December; Games, 2011), Sorority Life and numerous others to earn points that can be redeemed for real items. Many teens in our forum described earning virtual points in order to save money on holiday gift purchases this year.

“Yes, I earn points from sites like Swagbucks, Superpoints and others, and redeem them for gift cards. I typically make around $40 a month, although because I knew Christmas was coming up I managed to earn around $100 so far.” – Female, 19, AZ

Top virtual points/currencies among our panel: MyYearBook’s “Lunch Money,” Facebook “Credits,” Coca-Cola’s “MyCokeRewards,” Sorority Life’s “Brownie Points” and SwagBucks.

Watching Content Is A Social Experience

Social media turns watching content into a shared experience among teens, and with research citing improved ad recall when ads are published across multiple platforms (Up 150%, compared to just TV; Mashable, 2011), the circumstances are ripe for brands to create an integrated approach to content. When tuning-in to their favorite TV shows (Glee, by a two-to-one margin; Mr Youth, Nationwide Poll, 2011) 53% are posting comments about the show to their Facebook pages, 45% are texting their friends show-related updates, a staggering 39% will visit the show’s Facebook page, and 18% will Tweet directly at the show. By contrast, only 11% report using a show’s specific mobile app (Mr Youth, Nationwide Poll, 2011).

Among teens who feel compelled to stay focused on (only) the show, many teens will opt for texting or sending a message via Facebook chat during commercial breaks. This provides an opportunity for brands to extend show engagement through social activities during the “commercial break” that ties back to the content, and socialize the experience among a viewer’s friends.

“I watch and I will always be on Facebook on another tab and if friends are chatting with me, which they most likely are, I chat back during commercials.” – Female, 19, MN

Teens Yearn For More Customization On Facebook

Earlier this year, we surveyed teens across the country on their reactions to the Facebook changes unveiled at F8 in September. Two and a half months later, we decided to reach back out to teens for their insights. Among 250 responses from our online discussion, teens expressed their overwhelming desire to keep things simple and unchanged. Negative sentiment (among our responses) to Facebook’s ticker remains persistently highly, as teens think it provides too much information about their social activities. On the other hand, Facebook mobile (and “places” in particular) is very well received. Teens look forward to the day when they can customize their pages further, choosing their own color schemes, much like the old MySpace. As brands find creative ways to personalize and brand their own timeline pages, they should also be thinking of ways to help teens modify and individualize their own pages.

“The only thing that I think would help make Facebook better is if they let you customize you profile background and colors. This will help express your personality at a higher level.” – Female, 19 OH

Teens Use Google+ To Meet Up Online

Teens are using Google+ to have more intimate conversations among subsets of friends, carving out circles, which fit their own definitions of social groups. Teens have fun defining these: “cool kids, weird people, fat people, hot girls (and guys) and Moustache Mafia,” are among the more interesting circles. Teens also create circles for high school classes and after-school clubs/hobbies to facilitate study sessions. Hangouts are another way in which teens can connect with their classmates online to socialize their late-night cramming. Brands should support this activity, helping to bring together teens around unique circles and interests.

“I actually love Google + and wish more people would use it. My circles are: Posse (main group of friends), Mom Friends (so I won’t annoy my friends with gross updates about parenting), College Friends, and High School Friends.” – Female, 19, CA

Teens View Twitter As Their News Source

For teens, Twitter is their news source. They follow musicians, sports teams, celebrities, authors and deals from brands. As other platforms are better at conversations among peers, Twitter is (predominantly) a broadcast medium with this generation for up-to-the-minute facts. A few sources they follow most closely: The Onion, NPR, Local News, TMZ and MacNews.

“I do use Twitter! I follow Old Navy, Banana Republic, Airbus, US Airways, Southwest, BBC, CNN, and my local news.” – Male, 18, AZ

Spotify And TurnTable Turn Teens On To Music

This generation prefers free, on-demand music from streaming services as opposed to content ownership. With the ability for teens to follow what their friends are listening to on Facebook, teens now have Spotify and Turntable to thank for expanding their own musical tastes. In a recent poll among teens, we found that 70% of teens are “highly likely” to listen-in to music tracks that they notice their friends listening to in the activity feed on Facebook (Mr Youth Nationwide Poll, 2011). Undoubtedly, this social integration has led to the successful rise of Spotify, Turntable and other services keen on taking advantage of Facebook apps, as a way to grow awareness of their services. Top music services with teens in 2011 included Pandora, YouTube and Spotify, as well as lesser-known sources Grooveshark,,, SoundCloud, and Tumblr.

“I use Spotify because I love showing my friends what I’m listening to.” – Male, 16, NY

Teens Want Ads That Entertain And Offer Authentic Messages

Teen’s tune-in to brands that offer distinct value exchanges. They want to be entertained, while also learning how products will benefit them. Allstate’s Mayhem accomplished this, providing a source of entertainment, while also conveying a straightforward product benefit. Other top ads with teens this year include Target’s recent two-day sale Black Friday ads, Kenny Power’s K-Swiss ads and Old Navy’s “Funnavations” campaign. A few lesser-known examples also surfaced, including Derma Blend’s “Go Beyond The Cover” ads (Derma Blend, Go Beyond The Cover; Derma Blend, 2011), which reached more than 7 million views on YouTube in just two months.

“I look for humor, results, and excitement in my commercials.” – Male, 15, MI

Ads that missed the mark? Ads that “tried too hard to be cool” or appeared to alienate or exclude others. Exclusivity, or “us vs. them” marketing that might have worked with older generations, is seen as offensive among this generation. One example of what did not connect with them was Dr. Pepper’s latest campaign, which focused solely on men. Teen girls in our panel felt left out, with a vocal minority vowing never again to drink the soda. Among teen guys, they saw the ad as playing on traditional stereotypes (Dr. Pepper TEN; Dr. Pepper, 2011).

“Dr. Pepper is my second favorite drink, too! I haven’t had Dr. Pepper since because it made me so frustrated. It was a ridiculous commercial, it was sexist.” – Robert, 19, IL

Diverse, Customized Style Is The Trend

A tough economy has not kept this generation of teens from expressing their own sense of style. Popular among teens this year were Toms shoes, Uggs, hair feathers (yes, feathers!), animal prints, moccasins, and leather jackets. Both vintage and hipster looks appear to be alive and we’ll, among. Beyond the usual e-commerce destinations (Amazon, Forever 21, Urban Outfitters, Haute Look, Ruelala), it was interesting to see many on the radar that we might not know about. Up-and-coming e-commerce sites included: 6pm, nomorerack, modcloth, Free People, Go Jane, Beyond The Rack,,,, &

“I express myself by not following the trends set by others,but by creating my own trend and if no-one agrees with it or doesn’t like it, so be it. I am a representation of myself and no-one else and that can never be taken from me or any other person who feels the same.” – Female, 16, MI

Now it’s time to close the door on 2011, and enjoy the holiday season. Keep these insights in your back pocket for 2012, and consider how the events, technologies and social platforms teens are using today will impact their decision making in the New Year!

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