Marketing to Teens Online

Online marketing not only invades privacy; it often misses the mark. An "opt-in" system would protect kids and help advertisers target customers

With Facebook's decision to allow advertisers to display ads based on information users post on their profiles, the debate over online privacy has gained new momentum, especially since today's teenagers are living out a big chunk of their lives on social networking sites. Advertisers can now target underage consumers with relative ease, raising obvious ethical questions. But even if there were no such worries, marketers would need to be aware of pitfalls in trying to reach young consumers online.

Privacy advocates fret about marketers abusing the rich treasure trove of very personal data being posted by teens these days. At present, the only law that regulates online marketing to children is COPPA, the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, which requires parental permission before any commercial entity can collect personal information from a child under 13. But there's no law that governs marketing to older teens.

Privacy groups are also advocating for a "Do Not Track List." This would give consumers of all ages the right to opt out of marketing efforts wherein a Web site places "cookies" on a user's computer to monitor their surfing habits and deliver ads deemed appropriate to that behavior. But again, there are no special protections here for teens.

Yet while there's little to stop marketers from targeting the young, there are practical reasons why these efforts may backfire with teens. And with these in mind, there are practical ways for marketers to find and target a more receptive audience of young consumers.

The Lying Game

First and foremost, marketers need to grasp one basic reality that can turn their "targeted" ads into scattershot: Lying on the Internet is rampant. Just ask Tom Anderson, a MySpace (NWS) founder who was recently outed for lying about his age to make himself a couple of years younger. Adults lie on Internet dating sites all the time to make themselves a few pounds lighter or a few inches taller.

There are many reasons kids and teens lie when they go online. Here are just a handful:

• Kids are exploring their identities. This is a natural part of growing up—you try on different identities as a way to see how people respond and see what fits. Part of it is just playing, too. Remember pretending you were someone else and acting out different scenes in the backyard or playing Dungeons & Dragons in the basement? Likewise, the ease with which anyone can open multiple accounts on a Web site or create different avatars makes this type of exploration and play a natural part of a teen's digital life, just as it remains a stage of growing up in the offline world.

• Children yearn to join "cool" sites even if they're too young. Take a quick poll of middle schoolers (without their parents around) and ask if they have a MySpace or Facebook profile. Many will say yes —and that they've listed their age as 100, or at least much older than 11 or 12. Know any teens who buy or sell on eBay (EBAY), where you're supposed to be 18 to do so? I thought so. Tweens are aspirational. They want what older teens have, and if it's as easy as fudging their ages online to get it, they're going to lie.

• Children also don't want to be forced to make their social network profiles private. By default, MySpace makes private all profiles of users age 15 and under as a protective safety measure. Naturally, since some 14- and 15-year-olds want their profiles visible to the world (and don't realize they can go into their default settings and override this), they'll lie to change the default setting.

• Kids also lie on the Web to avoid creepy predators. One parent told me her 13-year-old son's MySpace profile says he's 26 and married with two kids. Teens, sometimes with parental encouragement, will give this type of false information because they don't want to be bothered by adults looking to chat it up with children.

• Since they've grown up being marketed to since birth, many children like to mess with marketers. Teens are pretty savvy about the reality that registration information they give online will be used for marketing purposes. Some of them will intentionally provide false information just to thwart those efforts.

Remember that since most teens use social networks to hang out virtually with the same friends they see at school all day, it doesn't matter if they lie because their friends are all in on the conceit. It's just something teens do for the reasons stated above.

With all this lying going on, there will be a lot of behavioral targeting of ads that completely misses the mark, with hordes of teenage "100-year-olds" getting pitches for cholesterol drugs and incontinence products.

Teens Want More Control

While teens may mess with advertisers as a way to fight back against the onslaught of marketing they are exposed to, they are not averse to all marketing. This is especially true if they love a product, the marketing offers some extra value, or it's simply funny and creative. As they're used to controlling their online experience, they strongly dislike pop-up ads or spam in the form of instant messages and text messages—particularly when the communications are out of context.

When Facebook first launched its newsfeed feature, allowing your entire network to see your every action, its users were outraged. Facebook remedied the situation by allowing users to control exactly who gets to see the newsfeed, photos, or other aspects of your profile.

Notably, in addition to its new targeted marketing effort, Facebook also announced on Nov. 6 that it plans to let advertisers create their own profile pages so that users can identify themselves as fans of a product. MySpace has been doing this for a while now , and the response has been strong. Droves of teens have "friended" the MySpace page set up by Wendy's (WEN) for a square hamburger named "Smart." Similarly, Condé Nast's teen site asks its users which ads they want to be displayed on their profiles when they register.

Approaches like these offer multiple benefits: They make teens understand that advertising pays for a Web site, get them to think about the products being offered, and let them consciously choose to align themselves with a specific brand. By giving younger users more control and choice over what ads they'll see, they may have more respect for the service and for the advertisers. This in turn may lead to word-of-mouth recommendations, a major force behind teen purchasing decisions.

The lesson here is that the real way to reach younger users on social networking sites is to be transparent about the need for advertising to support a free service. Then allow them to actively participate in determining what kinds of advertising they receive through a series of questions. Reward them for filling out the whole survey with a cool prize.

Instead of scraping their profiles and hoping your ads hit the right target, are noticed, and then actually clicked on, why not engage users to find out what kinds of ads would appeal to them? By allowing them to deliberately opt in and share information with you, they can maintain a comforting sense of control, and you can serve ads that will hit their target.