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

“Typical Kids” versus Your Kids: The Researcher’s Dilemma

Posted by Amy Henry on Fri, Mar 22, 2013 @ 04:09 PM

162270070Recently, we titled a presentation for Digital Kids 2013 “Everyone has an iPad” in which we promised to help sort the myths from the truths when it comes to the real habits and practices of today’s preschoolers through teens and their parents. Our inspiration? A bevy of calls over the past few years in which clients asked for accurate data on iPad (and iPhone, and eReader) data because at their organization everyone seemed to have an iPad. And, not surprisingly, the kids, tweens and teens of many of these marketers were often among that .5% who already had one of these cutting-edge devices to call their own.

At the heart of this question is one that goes deeper than data on digital devices…It involves the dilemma that youth researchers face regarding the “typical child” versus “my child.”

Of course, this challenge might face every researcher or planner who is forced to distinguish their own views or the perspectives of their crowd from those of the “consumer” for a given brand or category. But kids are a tricky category that makes this pitfall even more probable. We’ve all been children but we all have not been a middle-aged housewife, or a twenty-something guy who loves ESPN, for example. We pay a lot of attention to our children (other adults aren’t nearly as interesting). And, we tend to see youth segmented into stages that characterize universal, developmental truths related to kids that age. All of these characteristics of kids, tweens and teens put us at risk of seeing our children, children we know, or even our own childhood as exemplars and authorities on all children.

The solution might, on the surface, seem easy…Ignore your own kids. Forget your own childhood. Stay neutral, researcher!

Well, good luck. Researchers from all disciplines – Anthropology, Sociology, and even Psychology – have long cautioned that even the most noble efforts to adopt a reflexive stance, and to attend to the ways one’s own experience might shape the way we interpret or see data, true neutrality is never really possible.

AND…ignoring the children in our own lives brings its own risks with it. “My child isn’t typical” or “your child isn’t typical,” suggests that there IS a typical child. One that, perhaps, we fetishize – the “real” child, authentic “youth,” etc.  And it leads us to another question:  Who is that authentic kid or tween or teen whose image sits in our mind? Are they a he or a she? Are they Caucasian, Hispanic, African American? From the U.S.? What is their household income? Are they from the burbs or are they city kids? (How many times have we said, “New York City kids aren’t ‘typical’” when asked to conduct groups in the Big Apple?)

So how do we reconcile this dilemma in our thinking about youth? First, recognize that this challenge isn’t something that we ever truly master. It’s a question worth revisiting on every single project with every sample we consider. We think through this as we write about “trends,” for example: Is it okay to include something “big” in our kids’ schools or should we seek out the opinion of some other groups of kids who seem more “normal” than our own?   

But there are some questions to ask and guidelines to follow that can help you along the way…

  • Know the difference between inspiration and information…Our kids can be great sources of inspiration. Our newest YouthBeat offering, the Trendspotter, features trends that we came across in the media, on the road or from our YouthBeat qualitative panel, but certainly some were inspired by the play, the products, even the birthday parties in our kids’ lives. But when it comes to building a research plan or marketing plan on the number of teens who like brand on Facebook, make sure you’re looking at data specific to the group that your brand hopes to reach. It might be a sample that’s national, or, more likely, it’s a specific type of kid. Maybe your own children are good examples of that group, or maybe they’re not.
  • Recognize that there’s no “typical” kid…Forget about typical. This suggests that there’s a right childhood or a normal way to be. Our thinking about childhood can be overly framed by the idea of norms (standardized testing, Pediatrician’s milestones, developmental discourse), but keep in mind that children can be as individuated as adults. Children might be typical in some ways (they might eat the same foods as the “average” U.S. kid does), but they might be quite atypical in the way they consume media. Know what your respondents need to “represent” when you think about a representative youth sample.
  • Stop saying, “Kids today are different.” At the risk of sounding bossy, we suggest that you take this phrase out of your vocabulary! First, your OWN childhood isn’t likely to be exactly the way you remember it. Second, you were not likely a “typical” child just like your own children or even the children you meet in focus groups are not representative of all childhoods. You might not even know the ways in which your childhood was representative. Did you watch as much TV as other kids your age around the country? Was it more typical to ride your bike to school or to take the bus during your grade school years? The assumptions you’re making about your own childhood might be just as faulty as those we often make about the “normalness” of the kids in our own lives.
  • Remember that parenting and researching aren’t the same things…Speaking as someone who was a researcher before and after kids, I can attest—someone without kids can offer true and authentic insight into the lives of youth. Privileging parents can be a natural trap, but one that should be avoided. Living with children can sometimes cloud your vision, of course. But more importantly, equating parenting with researching children does a disservice to the discipline of youth and family research. Just like eating food doesn’t make someone a skilled food researcher, or shopping doesn’t make someone an expert on consumers or consumerism, we suggest that you can know youth without living with them.
  • Finally, recognize that the children in your life might actually be useful to your work! Recently, I observed a local playground over a period of eight weeks for a school assignment. I tried to go without my own children in order to maintain focus, but also to maintain my objectivity. A few times, my son came along. And you know what? I gained access to conversations that I would never have heard from the benches on the side of the slide. I had permission to get in the game in a different way. And what he told me about his experience at the playground was in language that was more natural, intimate and authentic than what I heard from kids and parents who were aware, to differing degrees, that there’s a script that’s performed between subject and researcher. Sometimes the kids, tweens and teens we know share useful “whys” about the practices in which they and their peers engage. With all the caveats listed above in mind, don’t be afraid to ask your children what they think. Just keep their responses in context.

Tags: youth research, play, kids tweens teens, research methods

Upcoming Webinar: “Putting the Preschool Market into Perspective”

Posted by Amy Henry on Wed, Jan 25, 2012 @ 01:05 PM

Presenter: Amy Henry, Vice President, Youth Insights
January 31st at 1pm (CT)

Preschoolers have more power in American households than ever before. They have always had opinions, but those opinions are taken more seriously by today's parents who seek to listen and learn from their preschoolers as much as they try to teach them.  

Today's preschoolers no longer have to settle for oversized baby stuff or wait for big kid stuff-they have a culture that they can call their own. Also, parents of preschoolers are highly invested in the choices they make for their preschoolers as they know that their decisions about their children's education, eating, and entertainment set the stage for their child's preferences and opportunities in the years to come.

In this webinar, you'll learn about:

  • The critical issues facing today's preschool parents and their children
  • Insights that will affect your ability to better connect with them
  • Cases that show how the best preschool brands are navigating this tricky terrain
  • Practical considerations that come into play when preschool parents are making decisions in your category
  • Finally, we'll describe some of the best practices in conducting research with this age group and introduce you to some of C+R's most effective tools for uncovering their needs

Click here to sign up!

Tags: youth research, kids, play, research methods, parenting

The Anatomy of a Youth Trend

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Sep 06, 2011 @ 01:59 PM

It’s officially September and that means youth all across the country are either settling into a school year or are just about to head to class. The back-to-school moment often marks the beginning of trend-spotting season – for youth and marketers.

 At YouthBeat, with a grounding in a syndicated study among kids, tweens, teens and parents, we’re often asked about the latest youth and family trends. But the work of trend spotting is complicated when it comes to youth, so we thought we would both explore some of the central questions surrounding this issue, and, of course, offer some answers.

What’s the timeframe for a trend? Futurists, cool hunters, business strategists and scholars often debate this issue…Many contend that a trend represents a happening that occurs over a long stretch of time – 10 years. Some see trends as obsolete after just a few months (or weeks!). For youth, the matter is more complex because trends are often cyclical. We recently reported on a resurgence of interest in pirates among youth of all ages…Is this a “trend,” or is it an evergreen with a contemporary makeover? We’ve often heard that by the time kids are talking about a trend, it’s on its way out. But if this is true, than who tells us about youth trends? Playing on our YouthBeat thematic, we have coined our own version of trends as “vibes.” We focus on the big shifts in culture, the underlying drivers of behavior across many aspects of youth’s lives and the meaning behind what they buy in a variety of categories. But through this lens, some of the most interesting and inspiring “fads” (another term that adds to the semantics surrounding trends) get lost in the shuffle. Bieber Fever isn’t a “vibe,” but it’s telling…the question is “what is it saying?”Youth Trends

Who determines youth trends? This question might apply to adults as well…Can we really look at early adopters to help us predict the future habits of the majority? Are the phenomenon that have taken hold in other cultures really good gauges for the next big thing in the States? For youth trends, the question of authority is even more issue-laden. Do we rely on informed adults to tell us about the trends? Afterall, much of the “stuff” of youth trends, including products, music, fashion, etc. are at least financed if not created by adults. Youth may determine which adult ideas to seize, but they don’t always think about what’s next. In our own YouthBeat Time Capsule qualitative exercise (an ongoing initiative that results in Time Capsule TV videos available to YouthBeat subscribers), we often see that youth identify familiar properties like Harry Potter or ubiquitous brands like Apple as “new.” If we rely on them to tell us what’s next, we’re not likely to get very far. At the same time, adults tends to focus more on what might be right for the market, or where an undiscovered technology could take a category. We think, to truly predict a trend, you have to marry the sensibilities of youth with stimulus from forward-looking adults. 

And what evidence do we need to name a trend? The answer to this certainly varies depending on your need for trends, but also on how you use them. Do trends require quantitative support or can something that feels “sticky” constitute a trend-in-the-making? Can ten teens in New York City really have their thumb on the pulse of the zeitgeist enough to predict what will catch on in Kansas? And if we ask parents or kids what movements or shifts they’re experiencing, will we really get answers that underline trends, or will we just get a catalog of current behaviors and truths? Furthermore, can a trend be proven by citing an article in the Journal or the New York Times, by referencing buzz on a blog or on Facebook, or by noting a playground practice seen or heard in your local community?

With all of these questions, it may seem that identifying youth trends isn’t worth the trouble. But we know that understanding what’s next matters to anyone who is trying to keep up with the youngest audiences and users of programs and products. So here are a few simple rules we use – and will use in a series of upcoming blogs that will attempt to cut through the fog around fads!

  1. It’s always about the “why.” Trends can be a trap for many marketers and makers of experiences who focus more on the content than on the drivers of content appeal. The happening or the product or the song that signals a trend is over once it happens, but the forces that made it rise to the top of youth’s mind or to its own category are probably not. This means that finding the newest thing isn’t nearly as relevant as knowing the new reasons why something has come back.
  2. Getting “big” usually means getting more than one thing right. It’s easy to look at a trend or a craze and point to one factor that made it pop. But most tap into numerous themes – timeless and timely – all at one time. Kids might be younger, but their relationship to the culture they care about is not. Just because Silly Bandz worked for kids doesn’t mean that a knock-off will work just as well. Twilight might be popular, but vampires aren’t a surefire formula to attract tween girls. Analyzing trends and fads requires a deep look at all of the aspects of a thing, and importantly, how they all fit together.
  3. Finally, finding trends requires flexibility. If there was a formulaic approach to identifying the new dish, someone would have revealed it by now. It’s easy to claim that there’s a transparent approach to finding trends, or that it’s just a matter of hard work. But the truth is that trends can reveal themselves in multiple ways…It may be a matter of noticing that many different kinds of people are talking about the same thing…That a number of popular products or items pull on a common thread…That something from somewhere else (another market, a niche group) looks to be the missing puzzle piece that the mainstream is seeking… In any case, trendspotting is more art than science and that means committing to openness more than a pre-determined process.

Stay tuned for our next post on one “trend” we’ve caught cropping up in a few places, “Posh Play Spaces.”

Tags: research, kids, Twilight, Youth, Teens, culture, research methods, tweens, Silly Bandz

Youth Methods: When is it okay to give kids, tweens and teens some homework?

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, May 10, 2011 @ 12:06 PM

Books like "The Case Against Homework" (Crown, 2006) and "The Homework Myth" (Da Capo, 2007) have given a voice to a movement bubbling up in the homes and hallways of U.S. schools – parents are pushing back on teachers that assign too much homework. According to Duke University’s Harris Cooper, teachers should assign 10 minutes of homework a night per grade – i.e., a fifth grader should have 50 minutes of homework each night.  This "10-minute rule" has won the endorsement of the National PTA and the NEA, although parents all over the country continue to bemoan assignments that take their early elementary-schoolers in excess of one hour to complete.market research

So with kids already feeling the pinch and pressure of too much homework, and parents growing resentful about work that takes their children away from precious time with their families, why do many research designs include a “homework” or “pre-work” element?

Well, we think these assignments show up in proposals for many good reasons…

  • Pre-work can extend the life of your focus group or ethnography in a cost-effective way. While homework costs (facilities charge for distributing, mailing packets take postage and people power, and prepping a thoughtful assignment can take as much time as crafting a great guide), it’s also much more efficient than extending the time of your focus group or recruiting multiple cells of respondents to complete different tasks. Asking youth to write a story about an experience they have before they arrive will not only give them time to think and mentally prepare for participating, but will also preserve group time for getting to the “why” rather than watching them write.
  • For kids, tweens and teens, being “chosen” for a focus group can be a very big deal. We want them to know that their opinions really matter – and if we succeed in conveying this import to them, they might be a bit nervous. Not only do they have to answer questions “on the spot” but they often have to do so in front of a few strangers and their peers. Giving them an assignment can actually alleviate their fears and make them feel confident that they’ll have something to say right from the start.
  • Pre-placement is important to help you answer specific types of research questions.  Some types of “products” like TV shows, can’t be “authentically” researched without a little pre-placement. Seeing someone’s first reaction in a group might be useful, but will a preschooler love Dora as much the first time as she does on the fifth or sixth viewing? Sometimes replicating a real-life reaction means exposing kids to your product or concept more than once before you begin discussing it with them.
  • Kids, tweens and teens have great memories, but they might not have been paying attention to the minutiae that we would like them to be able to recall…Even a request as seemingly benign as “tell me what you ate for breakfast last week” can cause anxiety or at least a pause as kids, tweens and teens attempt to retrieve these mundane memories from among their more visceral ones (getting a hit in the big game, having a big laugh with their pals or getting a surprise pop quiz in social studies class). Homework that has youth keep track of a topic in the moment or rewind their weekly history in advance of meeting the moderator can make for a much more fruitful conversation and can avoid some of those “I don’t knows” or “I forgets” that are inevitably part of research with youth.

But before you pile on the prep work, consider the following:

  • Are you setting kids, tweens and teens up for success? Is the assignment doable in the time allotted? Is the assignment clear and concrete enough for them to complete it on their own? Despite great intentions, a homework assignment that rushes or confuses your respondent can do more damage than good…
  • Is pre-work feeling like homework? Are you setting a tone that’s right for your topic? If getting great feedback from youth means putting them in a playful mindset, make sure your assignment doesn’t feel – gasp – boring! The stakes are higher for homework in general, as it signals to youth what the conversation will be like and what they can expect from the research experience. Pre-work that feels too much like homework might inspire your respondents to find something else to do the evening of your groups or the day of your ethnography.
  • Finally, is your homework meaningful to your study? In the interest of adding value, or getting more bang for your research buck, it’s tempting to address a question in pre-work that only loosely relates to your overall study objectives. This approach might seem savvy, but it can raise roadblocks to getting to the heart of your real issue. Kids, tweens and teens (and adults!) want to help…Having them complete a media diary, for example, when your conversation is about all kinds of play might garner you responses that are more focused than authentic. When youth spend time on an assignment, only to find that there isn’t time to debrief on it in a group, they can feel slighted and unacknowledged. Payment doesn’t go as far as praise, and if you want kids to engage, show them that you want to see what they did in their pre-work assignments.

Tags: book, homework, research methods

YouthBeat Methods Series: Putting Kids, Tweens and Teens in the Director’s Chair

Posted by Amy Henry on Tue, Apr 12, 2011 @ 08:59 AM

Experts in the youth research and marketing space have long posited that understanding and connecting with youth constitutes an art form all its own. Conducting research with youth often requires re-inventing your research suite to include tools that allow youth to authentically communicate their ideas and feelings – while keeping conscious of cost, timing and client needs. Each month, YouthBeat will bring you our POV on the latest (and the lingering) youth research to help you make the most of your youth research budget. 

To complement our year-round quantitative study among youth and parent, our YouthBeat research plan includes qualitative feedback from a panel of families who share their ideas with us every six weeks. We arm them with hand-held cameras and empower them to create their own documentaries on topics we provide. We’ve been using this approach for a while, and we’ve learned a few lessons along the way…

  1. Video documentaries work better for youth than for adults…While adults often cringe and wonder how they look on film, today’s youth (generally) revel in the chance for a few minutes of fame. They see being on film as more of an opportunity to express their ideas than a risk of appearing awkward, and they are far from intimidated by this user-friendly technology.
  2. Putting them in control of the interview inherently gets them talking…Although the best youth moderators listen more than they talk, it’s challenging, in a focus group setting, to provide youth with the chance to tell a story, or to expand on their ideas. The same kid, tween or teen who might provide a socially acceptable short answer in a focus group setting come to life when they’re given time. We provide our youth with an outline of questions, but we know we have a great probe when it prompts a personal story.
  3. We learn more from youth when we allow them to show, not tell. Asking youth to take their camera on the road can lead to shaky shots and sub-par film quality, but by getting a tour of their spaces, a look at their favorite things, or an introduction to the people they care about, we get a richer picture than we could in a focus group, and often, more access than we obtain in an ethnography.
  4. Video documentaries aren’t always a bargain…They require an initial investment in cameras, shipping costs and incentives that are high enough to counterbalance the value of the camera that you’re sending. While you can analyze focus groups in “real time,” video documentaries require the time (and cost of) downloading footage, reviewing and then identifying the story of your study. But they do eliminate the cost of travel and time lost to travel, which may make it a worthy alternative to visiting the diverse and sometimes far-flung places where your audiences live and play. 
  5. Like all research choices, there are trade-offs. Video documentaries can’t replace conversations…We can’t clarify, or follow-up when they say something intriguing or perplexing. With our panel, we’ve learned that the first round of research often serves as a practice run (a luxury you don’t often have when you’re conducting a custom study against a tight timeline), as we almost always have to remind respondents to be very specific in their responses and to spare us no detail! And we can’t control compliance in the same way that we can when we’re in the room with youth (it’s harder to sit in a focus group room and not talk than to send back a blank video camera and bypass your incentive…).

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to youth research, but we think video documentaries are a method worth trying. If your topic is right, and your budget allows, try putting youth in the director’s chair.

Tags: video documentaries, research methods