A recent article in The New York Times attempts to shed light on a segment of particular interest to retailers: the teen app user. In addition to shedding light on rapidly changing attitudes toward different apps, the story took a look at how app developers are trying to use that information to create engaging new products that cater to the youngest and arguably most connected generation yet.
While some brands are rushing to try and figure out how Snapchat works or what time of day is best to post to their Instagram feed, maybe a better question is: What are the rules of engagement across different platforms now, and how can a consumer-facing company avoid the pitfall of looking uncool to this coveted demographic? Like any question involving the quest for acceptance from a group of teens, it’s murky territory but well worth the angst for those that want to crack a new social code.
To understand teen app usage, it’s a good idea to start with one of the most popular apps for users under the age of 17: Wishbone. At just over a year old and with 3 million monthly users, the social app asks users to create and answer polls on a variety of pop culture topics via side-by-side pictures that compare rappers (Wiz Khalifa or Drake?), celebrities (Kim Kardashian or Beyoncé), dueling prom dresses and the like.
As NYT notes, Wishbone users achieve status (after all, high school is still one big popularity contest, albeit digital now) on the social network by amassing friends who vote with a thumb tap. Just to drive home the message of who is “in” and who’s not, twice a day, the Wishbone team sends a “Daily Dozen” of the most popular polls to every Wishbone user. Like being named to prom court or voted “funniest” in a yearbook, featured polls are nearly guaranteed a lot of views and thumbs-up votes, and votes, similar to likes on Facebook — which teens barely even log onto anymore — are the coin of Wishbone’s realm.
“They have immediate social validation or lack of validation at the touch of a button,” Michael Jones, chief executive of Science Inc., which owns Wishbone, told NYT. “So, if you thought that the immediate gratification generation was two generations ago, you haven’t even seen what immediate gratification looks like until you start spending time with, like, a teen on a phone.”
Since this past July, Wishbone has consistently ranked among the top 30 most downloaded social media apps in the Apple App Store, according to App Annie, which tracks the popularity of applications. With brands projected to spend over $30 billion on in-app advertising in the United States this year — roughly double what they spent in 2014 — the business of developing apps with the potential to attract the next generation of shoppers has huge potential.
To do that, app developers are starting to shift their attention to 17-year-old and under teens as they pour through data, conduct focus groups and aim to understand how they increasingly live their lives via their mobile devices. Much like the dividing line between Generation X and millennials was the fact that millennials were Internet-native, a major difference between millennials and post-millennials has been the widespread availability of “always connected” smartphones.
With this native use comes a set of unspoken rules integrated so fluidly into usage that an outsider struggles to catalog and make sense of them all. One of the more interesting passages of the NYT article outlined these such rules as defined by two teen girls, Leila and Lucy, as they spent an afternoon at the mall in Southern California, of course, with their mobile phones. As they explained to reporter Conor Dougherty, since nothing particularly special happened that afternoon, Lucy posted only a few videos to Snapchat — including a clip of the interview— but nothing on Instagram.
While teens have a list of complaints about Snapchat — including challenges in following conversations, since images disappear after 10 seconds — Instagram is a highly coveted space where praise for perfectly curated images, captions and comments can make or break your online reputation. Instagram also, compared to Snapchat, holds a lot more emotional volatility with the risk of not gaining the acceptance of their peers perhaps the highest of any social network. That’s one of the reasons, the girls explained to Dougherty, that they regularly delete photos from their feed, keeping only a few select prized images up at any time.
“I have zero [images on Instagram] right now,” Lucy told NYT.
“Yeah,” Leila chimed in, “’cause I’m like, ‘Oh wait, I look stupid in this one.’”
And there you have it.
NYT articulated some of Leila’s other rules for Instagram: Never post more than one photo a week and avoid photo filters (too fake) and hashtags (too desperate). It’s also important to find the perfect timely occasion to post — such as National Watermelon Day — and she is so concerned about adding the right caption to her photos that she keeps a list of ideas on her iPhone.
These “rules” fly directly in the face of some of the “best practices” for brands. Companies would be well-advised, however, to move past the shock of having to learn a whole new set of posting behaviors and allow the possibility that to reach teens, they’ve got to think like a teen. In that regard, there is potential for some interesting strategic experiments for advantageous brands seeking to reach sub-millennials.
The emotional stakes of these “rules” are also very high for teens, which also offer some interesting perspectives for brands.
As Neil Howe, author and historian who is credited with coining the term “millennial generation,” points out to NYT, “There’s a whole new curriculum being pushed by Gen X parents, and one thing it emphasizes above all is emotional intelligence and being very sensitive to the needs of others.” In surveys conducted by Howe’s consulting company, LifeCourse Associates, teenagers show tendencies toward extreme anxiety around being criticized on social media and are more conscious than their parents of when an app makes them feel bad.
App developers, like Wishbone, as the article notes, see these digital social anxieties as an opportunity. The app doesn’t ask users to post perfect pictures nor does it require picturesque locales for their vacation shots. Users just make funny polls to talk about celebrities, makeup and bands. It is about your tastes not your identity. Therein may lie the most important lesson for brands: Drop the idea of perfection and embrace the idea of “we’re all good enough” at least to participate, which is of paramount importance in the world of apps.
Monthly users are far less important to advertising dollars than daily engagement, and the apps that can achieve this are few and far between. Apps that allow everyone to participate — regardless of what they look like or their access to envy-worthy experiences and products — are likely to come out on top in the battle for users. Brands looking to stay competitive in the app space should take a note and design creative, interactive ad experiences and their own native content that speaks to this growing feel-good trend.