E-Mailing Teens and Tweens: Pitfalls and Opportunities

By Paul Soltoff | Posted May 06, 2003

They spend $39 billion a year and influence their parents to the tune of tens of billions of dollars more. One global survey found 67 percent of families base their new-car decisions on them, while 62 percent rely on them for advice on mobile phones and 65 percent for advice on clothing. A growing number of financial companies have developed credit cards and other credit options specifically for them, and the majority of them have bank accounts and ATM cards as well.

They are teens and tweens, and they represent a powerful marketing opportunity if — and only if — they're approached correctly, ethically, and within the boundaries of the privacy and protection laws in place to protect them from financial and criminal predators.

Very briefly, let's look at what marketers need to know about the teen and tween demographic. According to Packaged Facts:

    • Today's children are growing up faster, both emotionally and physically, than children in past generations.

    • PCs, the Internet, and cell phones are second nature to them.

    • Households with tweens/teens have vastly different shopping and buying habits than households without these young people.

  • Children are potentially the best viral marketers. When they find something they love, they tell everyone they know, who tells everyone they know, and, well, soon enough every kid knows about it.

Before we go any further with this particular discussion, I think it's important to emphasize marketing to tweens/teens must be approached with care. Wide-reaching privacy regulations govern the postal mail and e-mail worlds, with good reason.

Parents, politicians, and child advocacy groups are justified in their fear that, without these strict regulations, children are vulnerable to con artists, pornographers, and even child molesters. It's not only the criminal element that preys on kids, it's also the unscrupulous marketer who thinks nothing of bombarding children with inappropriate products and services.

That is why my advice is aimed only at bona fide entities with truly kid-friendly and appropriate products and services. Think colleges that want to reach out to teens or marketers of learning games that can help tweens with math or spelling.

For these kinds of companies, the big question is often whether it's worth the effort to design and implement e-mail marketing campaigns targeting this group. With Children's Online Privacy and Protection Act (COPPA) and other legislation standing guard, it is true the process is more difficult than with adults. But when it's done properly, it can pay off.

To do it properly, however, you must start with the parents.

That's right. With existing and pending anti-spam legislation, getting parental permission is often the required, as well as ethical, starting point when marketing to kids. Unless you are positive the e-mail list you've rented is squeaky clean in terms of privacy issues, I don't recommend sending e-mails to tweens/teens without first getting their parent's permission.

You need to earn the trust of parents to secure their permission to send e-mail either directly to their children or to them on behalf of their kids, which is what happens in the postal world. (How many times have you received envelopes addressed "to the parents of"?)

Step 1: Devise an Approach to Ask Parents for Permission
Most parents today are very protective (most kids would say overprotective) of their children, so you need some very good reasons for them to grant you permission to e-mail them or their kids.

For example, do you have information that will help improve their children's test scores? If so, in the spirit of reaching out, you might offer a free sample so parents can see what you are marketing.

In your initial e-mail to parents, you should include an offer and a request for permission to contact. You may want to test asking for permission to e-mail only the child, only the parent, or both to see which works best. Go out of your way to load up your message with information that will give parents a good feeling about your company: real testimonials, awards, seals of approval, and so on.

Step 2: Write the Copy for Two Audiences
Once you've obtained permission, you'll probably find some parents will give you permission to send the e-mail to them and others to e-mail their children directly. That's why you'll want to develop two versions of your e-mail message — appeal to their distinctly different tastes. To see samples of what other marketers are doing, send a blank e-mail to one or more of the addresses below (you won't be added to any list!):

In general, parents will be looking at the positives and negatives of what you e-mail — all the benefits and downsides, pros and cons. Be sure to present the entire case for your product or service. In this kind of e-mail, you're pitching parents to buy your product or service on behalf of their kids.

Children, on the other hand, have different wants and needs. Hence, they require different messaging. Although a parent is concerned about all the mundane details of a cell phone plan, the kids want to know only that it's affordable, cool looking, has lots of color and ring-tone choices, and has lots of minutes each month. Parents are likely to read about a potential SAT improvement class in great detail, but kids just want to know how much of their time they need to give up for this class.

Don't forget that tweens/teens have a language all their own. Your e-mails should take that into account. In other words:

    • Present the product in the right environment — a cell phone being used at the mall or a CD player worn while waiting for a bus.

    • Bright colors are better than dull, and edgy graphics are important. Watch MTV and other tween/teen-oriented networks and check out the ads in tween/teen-focused magazines to see how successful advertisers are positioning products and using color.

  • Think seriously about incorporating some of the new communication icons tweens/teens use regularly in e-mail, on their cell phones, and via instant messaging, such as abbreviations and contractions, numerals, and graphics, as well as smileys and other emoticons.

I can't emphasize enough the importance of having at least 25 parents and 25 kids in the proper age groups critique your e-mail messages. In all likelihood, you'll be quite surprised by what they have to say. In fact, you may want to create a panel of tweens/teens that meets several times during this process to give you consistent feedback.

You should also assume some of the e-mail you send directly to kids will still be read by their parents. If you're selling something parents would object to, don't bother.

In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with reaching out via e-mail to children and their parents with appropriate, mainstream offers. However, don't even attempt to push questionable, inappropriate products or services. If you do, you'll quickly find that the parents — aptly called "gatekeepers" in this case — will be tougher than the toughest bouncer or spam cop you can find.

Adapted from ClickZ

Paul Soltoff is the chief executive officer of SendTec, the parent company of DirectNet Advertising (DNA) and iFactz, and has more than 20 years of direct marketing experience on both the client and agency side. SendTec provides results-oriented direct marketing solutions for acquiring, retaining and communicating to customers through digital advertising; direct response television; patent-pending e-mail/Web convergence technologies; performance media, and media buying services. SendTec represents clients and advertising agencies such as AOL, National Geographic, AARP, Grey Worldwide, Cosmetmque, DBD Needham, Shell Oil, National Geographic, and IBM.


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