Writing for youth: what’s uncouth?

Spencer Willis of Brand Spanking attended a few events over summer and lamented some of the insipid youth marketing efforts in this story. So who better to offer up six top tips on engaging youth audiences than Lil Cameron, a writer with 25 years experience in, well, growing up.

Lil Cameron

I’m still young. Young-ish, I guess. I grew up during a lot of beginnings. The beginning of cellphones. The beginning of the internet, and email, then Facebook and YouTube. The beginning of everyone having an opinion they could share around the world. But mostly I remember the beginning of a new conversation – and the rhythm and language that will typify our generation.

Less constrained by ‘proper’ English and exposed to new forms of language like internet acronyms and text-speak, we’ve had to be flexible and open. Some people won’t want to hear it but we were the pioneers of a new language. It’s a world of half conversations and random thoughts, where imperfect is just perfect.

We don’t have to worry about being polished, because we’re not finished. And we don’t have to worry about being resolute because our position is bound to move any second now. In our world, facts are distrusted and opinions are believed. We create and adapt and put things out into the world, just to see what we get back.

So I’ll be the first to say it: only youth understand the position of youth. For your brand, using a young writer may be the difference between Christmas and just another fat man in a Santa suit. That’s why Apple employs school kids and the popular UK teen drama ‘Skins’ is written by 18-25 year olds.


Giving us a $10 discount when we join your corporate Facebook group will get our attention all right – we’ll take the money, then ‘unfriend’ you (back to the drawing board, eh?). But if you’re really committed to conquering us, here are a few pointers.

Bear in mind this isn’t based on a 50-page study of 3,000 teenagers written by a crusty old professor (like that makes sense anyway). It’s just a bit of common sense, really.

1: Make us feel a part of it

To talk to youth, talk beside us, not at us. We’ve been talked at all our lives and trust me, we don’t want to hear it. That’s why big extravagant gestures have given way to a handshake or a hug. And that’s what it’s about with youth. The sentiment, the wink – not the full bellied laugh. Intimacy and immediacy are what we want. It’s why we like the web so much.

As a brand, if you’re looking to engage us, find a way to let us in on the action. It might be as simple as a way for us to give feedback on your website (let’s just hope it’s positive)

2: Lose the formulaic ‘ads’ and seize the moment.

Mostly, life doesn’t happen like it does in the ads – a slow build up to a climax and hard-sell punchline. Life is more real. More . . . boring. Not necessarily spectacular moments, but ones that make us feel something. The things that entertain us are pretty freakin’ random, and it’s hard to know what will be a hit with many. Take one of the most watched YouTube videos of all time, ‘Numa numa’. A fat guy singing along to a song. ‘Dramatic chipmunk’ – five seconds of… of… I can’t even explain it, just look it up.

My point is, it’s about moment-making, not formulas. So if you’re writing an article, script, blog or ad, create moments. Tell us a slice-of-life story that sells our youth culture back to us. We’re self-aware and we love recognising authentic versions of ourselves on screen. That’s why we appreciate movies like ‘Superbad’ or ‘Juno’ – the characters actually sound like us. Where there’s honesty and insight, you’ll find youth audiences.

3. Be true to your brand voice.

“Holla at my peeps! Come buy some life insurance yo!” Ah, no. You’ve spent a lot of time building your brand, and with this comes your tone of voice. There are a lot of brands out there that could afford to loosen up, but try to keep your voice consistent over every communication.

If the language you use is simple and casual enough, young people are more likely to read it even if the content hasn’t been tailored specifically to us. After all, we still have to do grown up things like banking and paying taxes. But we want the brands who bring us these services to be like some kind of cool parental figure. Reliable. Trusted. Informative and understanding. But please not a stuffy muppet talking in language we don’t understand.

4. Be Google-wise, guys.

If you have a website, go and Google it now. Does it come up as the top search result? Third? Is it even on the first page of results? If not, you’ve still got a way to go – especially if you’re targeting youth (see Grant Osborne’s take on search, social media and keywords for a good explanation).

The internet is our first port of call for everything. We know no other way. So if you aren’t in the top search results, forget it. You might have a better offering than someone else, but if their website is optimised and yours isn’t, you’ve probably lost the chance to tell me that, because a high percentage of people don’t go past the first page of search results. Personally I rarely go past the first five links.

5. Give us control of your brand.

Hand over the joystick and let us play, brand hog. You might just discover huge benefits. Case in point – the Cadbury gorilla TV ad. If you look it up on YouTube you’ll find hundreds of re-edits and spoofs, with squillions of hits. That’s a lot of free publicity.

People of our generation have some trust issues, I’m sure you know. But if you give us the chance to personalise or interact with your brand, to make something our own then pass it on to our friends, we might just start believing again.

6. Social media: If you can’t do it well, don’t do it.

I’ve worked in loads of agencies where they ask me to ‘tack on a funny viral’ or ‘whip up a Facebook page’. It’s not like that. If you don’t have something interesting to say on a regular basis, skip Twitter or Facebook. And if you’re not ready to be outrageous or hilarious or silly, don’t even think about doing a viral video. Online media may seem like the cool gang that you really really want to be a part of, but it’s full of pitfalls if you don’t use it properly.

As we say: “God loves a trier. Youth hate a try-hard.” If in doubt, stick to having a great website and a regular e-newsletter.

And one last tip, the authority on youth is youth. It’s okay to admit that you’re a little bit past it – I almost am! Our age unconsciously informs our ideas, our prejudices and our ways of looking, so if you want to talk to young people, hire a young person.

Don’t be afraid to treat youth as the authority and really listen to them. Their worldview is different to yours in ways that can be both obvious and subtle – and you’re likely to miss the nuances if you try to imitate them yourself.

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