When I was a teenager, I was part of a youth planning board for a national tobacco prevention project. The person running the meeting, the creative director from an ad agency, came up to me and said “I watch MTV like every day, so I really get teens.” My undiplomatic 15-year-old self replied, “Wow, good for you.”
I believe in youth empowerment because I am a product of it. I spent my formative high school years consulting on public health promotion projects. I saw the impact young people can make when they are effectively engaged. I also know what it feels like to be window dressing on a project that the adults in charge would like to have “youth involved in”. I’ve been “the token teen” who is called upon to make it appear as if they are a part of the process.
These experiences, both good and bad, have shaped how our agency thinks about and engages young people in our clients’ projects. We are heartened when our clients say, “I want youth to be engaged from the start, at a core level.”
Young people came up with messaging that brought tobacco rates to the lowest they’ve been in decades and have reshaped how we talk about childhood obesity, teen pregnancy, stress, and a myriad of other topics. No one can influence a teenage behavior more than their peer, so having young people create and deliver your message is critical to success.
Transitioning from a young person to the adult in charge who now manages these projects, I understand the mental leap of faith this proposition requires. You feel like you’re giving the reigns to a program that is near and dear to your heart to a kid who may currently know nothing about it. I’ve made that leap numerous times with students, and each time I’m reminded why we do this work. When young people are guided through the process, educated, and empowered to be an equal partner and given the proper resources, they deliver far more than we ever imagined.
Young people are waiting for the opportunity to give their input, shape programs and get involved. This generation is always looking for an opportunity to make a difference. They want to put their stamp on the world. When it comes to youth marketing, we are there to facilitate this process so everyone wins. The youth engagement ladder is a classic way of understanding what role youth have in the process.
We strive to stay on the highest rung we can. Obviously that sounds virtuous, but really, that’s where the best results lie. If your goal is to communicate with teenagers and positively change behaviors, getting honest critical feedback is the only way to develop programming to reach that goal. Then engage that same group to help spread your message through youth marketing.
This is helpful at every stage of the process. Think about what they want to get out of the experience. Think about what would make them want to work with you. Keep this in mind when planning the time and location of your meetings, what content you will cover, and how they would be compensated.
For most young people, this is a new experience for them. In order for them to give you honest answers and honest feedback, it’s important to build trust by showing them that you are listening and understanding their feedback. Students will become engaged even deeper when they see their ideas come to life and their suggestions being actively utilized.
Working with young people is a collaborative process. There is a push and pull with your idea. Keep your meetings flexible and your concepts adjustable; things change.
It’s important to share the success of the campaign with the people who helped create it. Recognize their contributions and let them know how vital they were in the process. The success of any teen campaign is a direct measure of our success in effectively engaging young people in the process. We are happy to help you in any part of that process; it’s what our agency was built on.
Think of why a young person would want to get involved in your organization or cause, and why would they want to help. Is it a resume builder for them? Do you offer experience they could not get otherwise? Do you offer a stipend for their participation? Young people get involved in causes for a wide variety of reasons, so put some thought into why they would want to be part of it. This will help you judge if you need additional motivation.
Teenagers are not typically on your time schedule; mainly because they are teenagers. Most have very packed schedules and don’t always reply in a timely manner. Having very clear expectations prior to getting their commitment is crucial. We don’t ask teenagers to come to meetings until we have all of our meetings mapped out with times, places, and expectations. Then, before they commit, they know exactly what’s expected. Also, ask them their best mode of communication. Then you won’t be sitting there waiting by your email when they haven’t checked their email since last semester. Also, be considerate of their travel. Some have cars, some take the bus, some can’t travel easily at all.
You are not them. You are an adult and they are teens. Don’t try to be like a teen or act like a teen. As I said in the introduction, so many adults try too hard to impress teenagers with how “hip” and “young” they are. Don’t be that weirdo.