5 Youth Insight Shortcuts That Will Take You Nowhere

Posted by Amy Henry on Mon, Feb 10, 2014 @ 10:17 AM

Youth ResearchIn marketing, media, innovation and even in research, we can sometimes become victims of our own efficiency. Staying “big picture” and abiding by the old 80 for 20 rule seem to make perfect business sense. And Occam’s Razor (the hypotheses with the fewest assumptions should be selected and that simpler theories should be utilized until a more complicated one merits priority) is an oft-adopted mantra among sensible researchers.

Certainly, when starting research with youth, it’s natural to look to simple rules, guidelines and models to aid in interpretation. But over the years, we’ve noticed a few youth research shortcuts and youth insight practices that tend to lead marketers nowhere.

  1. Get the facts. Of course, researchers shouldn’t ignore facts. In fact, for example, we start our YouthBeat YearBook by looking at the demographic realities, of today’s youth and families. But too often, we’ve seen clients start with a number designed to disrupt – say a large spending or influence number – and forget to bring kids’, tweens’ and teens’ voices and lived experiences to it. Understanding the size of a market is important, but so is identifying the dynamics that make a market and the products that comprise it matter to youth.
  2. Focus your reading. We often get asked for recommendations on research specific to a topic related to youth. And of course, it may be that the topic you’re interested in is covered in a single volume. But a deep understanding of youth requires context – it means not only understanding the role of a device in their lives, but it also requires understanding the way they spend their days. Perhaps you offer youth a product in the food category, but understanding how they relate to identity, morality, emotions and even authority come into play when you consider how to connect with them. And this matters more than, not less than, the flavor or property that they currently care about (even though, with the right knowledge to guide your analysis, this trendy data can be extremely valuable).
  3. Tune out and turn off. Of course, we all need a break from the subject that occupies our professional days! But too often, we’ve seen brilliant strategists and creatives toil away on an idea, or seek to develop an innovative concept, only to find that one just like it is already on TV or in-store. Understanding youth and youth culture doesn’t always mean participating in it (in fact, just because you’re an American Idol superfan doesn’t mean you’re attuned to youth’s perspective on the show!). But it does mean that you should turn on the TV or take in a kid flick or shop the aisles of the supermarket yourself, rather than just studying these from your desk. Don’t assume you understand a property’s appeal without really taking the time to get to know it (this is why years ago, many marketers saw Twilight as simply a vampire movie rather that recognizing the multiple moral and social strands that made it salient among teens).  And steal a page from the way youth marketers and creatives of the past learned about their competitive set: go to where your competing programs air, operate or get consumed.
  4. Start at home. On one hand, we advocate for looking at the local and not ignoring the children you know. It’s natural that many of us will feel the most inspired and interested in the youth already lurking in our homes or our lives! But be aware of the pitfalls of curbing your curiosity there. You probably don’t assume that the women or men you research are like all the men and women in your lives. Remember, there are as many different children and childhoods as there are adults and to only attend to the insights you glean from your own offspring risks leading you astray.
  5. Keep it simple. This shortcut misstep often sounds like an affirmation that “nothing has changed” or an explanation that suggests that any youth phenomenon has just one cause or catalyst. In fact, any trend or truth related to youth often stems from a number of situational conditions. Just as most youth behaviors live somewhere along the continuum between nature and nurture, most preferences held by kids, tweens and teens reflect stage, age, experience and culture-at-large. And when you’re trying to understand what make one property or product or brand really work with your target, seek out more than one answer – not just the simple one that surfaces first.

Tags: research, youth research, qualitative research, quantitative research, research methods

5 Reasons to Re-think Preschoolers

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Jun 08, 2012 @ 11:38 AM

When it comes to youth, it’s safe to assume that while much has changed, much has also stayed the same. And that’s certainly the case for today’s preschoolers. But among the many things that have remained the same about this stage of life, it’s hard to deny that today’s preschoolers are different than any group that came before. While it’s important to understand what’s timeless about these tots, it’s equally important to refresh our perspective on what life means for these little ones right now.Preschool

As we prepare to launch YouthBeat Jr., a comprehensive syndicated study of children ages 2-5, we thought we would share some insights from our webinar, Putting the Preschool Market in Perspective, which we broadcast earlier this year. Here are five reasons we think it’s worth re-thinking our assumptions and perceptions about preschoolers right now:

  1. Preschoolers are taken more seriously than ever. For a long time, educators have considered the preschool years a critical period for learning. The parents of 2-5 year olds have also bought- in. They have high expectations for themselves, their children, and your brand/product/program.
  2. Preschoolers are no longer preparing for the social world – they live in it. According to a 2010 report from the U.S. Department of Education’s National Center of Education Statistics, 69% of 4 year olds and 68% of 5 year olds were in center-based school/daycare programs. Add to that the many young children who regularly participate in scheduled and highly managed play dates and play groups, and it’s clear that this group is social, and is looking for social scaffolding earlier than ever before.
  3. Preschoolers are more tech-savvy than ever. We can thank touchscreen technology for turning a trend that was already well-entrenched past the tipping point. Many preschool parents report that they worry that their child will be behind academically and socially if they’re not already engaged in online game-play. And even parents who bemoan their child’s excessive screen time tend to tell researchers that they’re just a bit proud at how nimbly their precocious preschooler navigates the iPhone.
  4. Preschoolers are demographically different than ever before. According to a 2011 U.S. Census report, racial and ethnic minorities make up more than half the children born in the U.S. However, the demographic distinctiveness of this cohort of preschoolers doesn’t stop with diversity. This is also a generation of preschoolers whose parents are older than in the past, who are more likely to grow up with fewer siblings, and who have more moms who work and more dads that stay at home.
  5. Preschoolers are more catered to than ever. Preschoolers and their parents are hardly happy to be treated like big babies or “kids” to come. They don’t want products that are just right-sized, but that truly fit their unique needs. This generation no longer needs to settle for kids radio – they can tune into bands whose sole purpose is to serenade them.

To download a the extended white paper version of this blog, click here. And to find out more about YouthBeat Jr., contact Amy Henry at amyh@crresearch.com or 312/828.9200.

Tags: Education, youth research, preschool, qualitative research, quantitative research

Anecdotes and Outliers: When Kids, Tweens and Teens Go Against Type

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jan 18, 2012 @ 01:35 PM

“You can’t trust 6 kids in Podunk…” might be a phrase you are familiar with if you’ve attempted to make decisions about the youth market based on qualitative research…Or, “those kids just aren’t representative.” Enter quantitative research, developmental models and other reassuring statistics and structures that show us what’s really happening in the world. But the problem is that sometimes youth defy expectations, act counter to “type,” and occasionally, the outliers are more relevant than we might care to think. The question for youth researchers: when do we change our minds about youth, and how do we know whether what we’re seeing is really right, or just reaffirms what we already believe?

I found myself wondering about this recently in relationship to what I’ve come to believe (and often seen) about gender identity and children’s play. It might be easy to see that gendered play is part nature, part nurture (clearly, boys will try on the tutu in the daycare dress-up trunk if they’re given permission, but at the same time, just try to talk a boy out of their crush on cars). And there’s no denying that girls gravitate towards princesses and pink in large numbers, if not exclusively. Countless studies and developmental paradigms provide explanations ranging from exposure to gender expectations to a cultural/biological need for boys to separate from their mothers, while girls model their behavior. But, what happens when you’re confronted with anecdotal evidence that all seems to converge on the same themes?

My four-year old son recently caught a severe case of Spiderman fever. superheroesDespite never seeing any of the recent or old Spiderman films or cartoons, and rarely finding himself in the toy aisle of any store (mom and dad prefer shopping online to taking a preschooler into a manufactured Mecca), he seems to have a version of the Spiderman narrative inscribed in his mind…This “version” seems to be the result of a telephone game of sorts that has been playing out in his preschool. Clearly, someone has heard of this magical man with webs shooting out of his wrists, but my son has brought home numerous variations on this theme. “He is friends with all kinds of spiders…” “He wears a red costume because that’s his favorite color…” “He says nice things to his friends – but the bad guys don’t…” Some of these ideas seem more authentic than others…

But his conflicted parents encourages him to dress up as a firefighter instead of a crime fighter this past Halloween. And he agreed. When we showed up at his school parade, we cringed – our little one was a lone community helper amidst a sea of superheroes. And here’s the kicker – it wasn’t just the boys. There were a few preschool princesses, but supergirl and spidergirl lined up right behind our son. And just the other day, we warned my son that our friends with daughters ages 3 and 7 (without an older brother to pass down his toys) might not have cars or superhero toys, only to arrive and find that – right next to the Barbie castle – was a pile of well-loved Spiderman dolls, vehicles and even trading cards. Soon, imaginary webs were flying.   

So what does a student of youth do with this kind of info? Do we deny the evidence that shows that the stereotypes are often true (regardless of what causes them)? Do we encourage brands and organizations to go against type and to stop making all of those girls toys for girls, and boyish gear for guys? Probably not…But, back to our original question, when do we acknowledge that these outliers might be evidence of a real trend or truth, and when do we simply dismiss them as “not representative?”

Clearly, the answer is more art than science…But a few questions might help.

  • Are you making assumptions about what one “like” means about another category? Youth often relate to brands, products and experiences in complex ways. Youth – particularly kids – can sometimes love both an experience and its opposite…Being an athlete doesn’t mean one’s not an artist…Liking TV doesn’t mean that you shun books or reading. Being connected to Facebook doesn’t mean that friendships in the real world don’t matter.
  • Does your method fit the answer you want? Don’t get us wrong – we think quantitative information is incredibly valuable. YouthBeat is founded on the premise that your perceptions might lead you astray if, for example, you see a six year old on Facebook and assume every elementary schooler is a member of the site. Or when you need to know how many teens really own iPads. In other words, 6 kids in Podunk might help you really understand your audience in a nuanced way. But if you’re wondering about your brand’s ability to resonate among members of an unexpected group, qualitative might help you understand not just the “whats” but the “hows.” Clearly, Spiderman hasn’t replaced princesses as the most popular play-thing of the preschool girl set, but careful observation and age-appropriate conversations might show just how “super” they think those heroes are.
  • What perceptions are we bringing to the table – and where do we place them? Finally, any great researcher knows that your own knowledge and experience with a category or audience segment is both your advantage and your Achilles heel. Knowing a lot about kids, tweens and teens, we would contend, is an incredibly important foundation on which to build your youth-specific custom study. In our opinion, you can’t truly make sense of the data you get back without knowing how these groups of youth express themselves, develop and make meaning of the world. But as important as knowing a lot is knowing when to blink…Even the most strongly held conventional wisdom deserves a re-think when evidence to the contrary emerges. This applies not only to what youth do, but perhaps even to what might be “good for them.” 
Regardless of what you know about youth, don’t forget to pay attention to the occasional outlier – it might just inspire you to get a leg-up on the next big insight.

Tags: youth research, qualitative research, quantitative research, superheroes, Superman