Putting in the Effort to Reach the “Holy Grail” of Stakeholders

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

Not a day goes by without hearing from some marketer discussing the importance of reaching the holy grail of audiences — 16- to 25-year-olds. Millennials, Gen Zs, and now Gen Alphas are who we all want to successfully inform and drive to action.

Chock full of disposable income, still developing brand loyalties, and facing the intellectual crossroads of what they want to do in school and in life, reaching this demographic is growing more and more important to everyone from soda companies to college admissions officers.

Successfully doing so, however, is a growing challenge. Last week, the NonProfit Times ran a piece alerting those seeking the grail that celebrities don’t influence their decisions. What about other traditional tools in the traditional PR toolbox? An article in a daily newspaper or even on a website won’t work, as most in the target audiences are getting their news from social media sites. Local radio? Television? Many don’t even know what that is, and if they do, it certainly isn’t a regular part of their information consumption.

When many in this target audience were just starting to walk and enroll in preschool, we would have said the answer was “the Internet,” as we threw around words like MySpace and blogs and Wikis, believing that simply attaching those terms was the solution, while failing to recognize the viral growth components that made such sites what they were back in the day.

Today, we know social media is the ticket, without truly understanding what social media is being consumed and how. Facebook and Twitter is largely for “Boomers” and “Karens.” Snap is almost always preferred over Insta. YouTube and TikTok can be the path to the promised land, but only if one knows how to deliver the right messages in the right ways with the right expectations.

The simple answer is … there is no silver bullet for reaching today’s youth. If there was, every Fortune 500 company would turn to it to boost sales, every college and university would use it to increase applications and enrollment, and every non-profit and advocacy group would implement it to increase volunteerism and activism.

No, the answer is far more complex than one-stop shopping or a magical fix-all elixir. To effectively reach young people, PR people need to apply a formula built on respect, understanding, and integrated communications.

Consider this three-point plan for successful youth communications:

One: Respect your audience.

There is nothing more frustrating than getting warned-over product originally created for someone else. It shows a lack of respect and absence of understanding.

But that is often how PR pros deal with youth communications. We take the messages and products developed for parents or teachers or other adults, change colors and photos, and wait for acceptance. Anyone who has done youth research, however, knows that the end user wants original content, developed for them and reflecting their values and priorities.

This may seem like a given, but it is essential in working with today’s youth. Students are far more sophisticated than many PR people give them credit for.

A free t-shirt no longer wins the day. Young decision-makers ask probing questions and have definitive positions on a host of issues. They want to engage in a dialogue, and not simply be lectured to. They want to be respected, not patronized. They want to be treated as the adults they believe themselves to be.

Two: Do your homework.

When PR pros look to distribute releases, we know to build a list to target the right reporters and editors, focusing on their beats and recent coverage. Such research is a core component of Media Relations 101. Why, then, do we not invest the same research into understanding how to reach today’s youth?

One needs to reach the right media with the right messages and products. Success is about understanding the end user and medium.

One only needs to look at survey after survey of high school students and how they make their college decisions to understand that. Particularly in a post-COVID world, students aren’t basing college choice solely on the national rankings or the recommendations of teachers or guidance counselors. Instead, they are looking for the personal touch, a campus that understands them, how they learn, how they grow, and how they achieve their goals.

For a successful college admissions officer, this is basic information. The traditional campus visit may have been replaced with a virtual one. Conversations with current students may have moved from the student union to Zoom. Websites have shifted from being a repository for catalogs and policies to serving as an interactive campus experience. Regardless, successful colleges have weathered the last two years (and the last two decades, for that matter), doing their research to understand their audiences. And their communications reflect that knowledge and understanding.

Three: Integrate and diversify.

There is no one-stop shopping in youth communications. Successful initiatives require careful integration of a diverse group of tactics and activities. Online. Word-of-mouth. Email. Collateral (ideally digital) distributed through trusted third parties. Earned media. Advertising. Social media. They play an important role in breaking through the traditional white noise and leaving a lasting impact on the audience you are trying to reach.

Today’s millennials, Gen Xers, and Generation Alpha members are sophisticated information consumers. They need to hear the message from from multiple audiences, in multiple venues, presented in multiple formats. Putting all efforts into TikTok is of little help if one doesn’t build the viral marketing and WOMA necessary to promote and drive your targets to take action. Targeted activities, integrated to complement each other, are the key to effective communication.

Common sense? Sure. Possible to implement? You bet. Proven effective? Undoubtedly. Necessary? If you want to break through the growing white noise the average 16- or 22-year old is exposed to and truly impact behavior and choice, they are non-negotiables.

Father; education advocacy pro; founder of Driving Force Institute; author of Eduflack blog; VP of Coker University; education agitator

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