Insights on Marketing & Technology

How to innovate in your marketing: Ask a teenager

If you’re a company looking to use social media and content in innovative ways, ask a teenager. And not because you want to market to teens (although you might), but because teenage behavior online draws a kind of road map to where marketing is going.

  • By: Ann Handley
  • Published: 09-04-2014

Here’s what I mean: My 17-year-old daughter bought a prom dress online this week. Before it even shipped from the warehouse, she had already posted a photo of it in a private Facebook group that the girls in her school set up weeks ago expressly to showcase what dress they were wearing to the prom, which is in May. 

The girls are essentially staking their dress claim and (at the same time) soliciting validation for their choices with likes and comments of their peers. 

In other words: 

Then: You bought a dress at a dress shop. You wore it to prom and hoped no one else had the same dress as you. (Or if they did, you hoped you looked better in it.) 

Now: “Remember that time when someone else showed up wearing the same dress to prom that I did?” said No Teen Ever. 

That’s one example of the ways that people like you and me are looking to innovate with social media and content, all the while teens ( “digital natives”) are already seamlessly and naturally doing it. 

Except they don’t call it “social media and content and mobile.” They just call it… living their lives. They don’t look to incorporate social into anything—the way some big consumer brands often add a layer of social sharing onto advertising and call it “content marketing.” 

To teens, social media is baked in, not bolted on. If you happen to live with teens, like I do, it’s happening right under your nose.Caroline and Jill 

Here are other standout examples of how teens use social media to create… well, content. (They’re also consuming it way differently,  but that’s a post for another day.) 

You might notice that these examples (like the dress story) also take some of the anxiety out of growing up. I can’t quite put my finger on it, but somehow that feels… justly unfair. 

Then: You agonize over finding the right moment to ask a girl to prom face-to-face, and pray you won’t face the white-hot shame of rejection. 

Now: You ask via social channels. 

At least one of my daughter’s friends has asked his date to prom via Instagram. In a particularly ambitious case earlier this week, one teen convinced the social news and entertainment site Buzzfeed to ask a girl to prom for him by creating a custom quiz. 

Teens are big consumers of Buzzfeed, in my house and in North Carolina, where 17-year-old Neeraj Suresh asked the popular site to help him create a quiz to invite his friend Urvi to prom with him. 

Neeraj sent BuzzFeed a list of questions and answers for his custom quiz, which Buzzfeed said was full of inside jokes between the two. This past Tuesday night, he sent Urvi the quiz and let her take it; she didn’t know, of course, that Neeraj had made himself the answer to every question. (She said yes, by the way.) 

Then: You show up on the first day of college hoping your roommate isn’t a jerk. 

Now: It feels like a “preunion” (a reunion of people who haven’t met), because you’ve already coordinated linens and decided who is bringing the mini fridge and microwave. (Hat tip to my friend Scott Monty for that phrase.) 

College now routinely set up public Facebook groups for admitted students, allowing students to pre-network with each other before they actually are living side by side. 

Kids take full advantage of the opportunity, of course.

Then: You launch a business after you finish school. 

Now: Before you graduate from high school you launch a business and sell it for more money than your parents make their entire working lives. 

Dover, N.H., high school senior Austin Long (yeah, that’s his LinkedIn profile) created his own company, called SquareOne, to help gamers manage their YouTube channels. Earlier this month, he sold it to the California-based Omnia Media for an undisclosed sum. Austin isn’t saying how much exactly, but at the time of sale SquareOne was projecting $2.5 million in gross annual sales. My cousin Beth is his marketing teacher at Dover High School, where Austin will graduate from in a few months. 

Then: You lose touch with people — friends from summer camp, ex-boyfriends or girlfriends, your friends when you move. 

Now: You never lose touch with anyone. Ever. Even if it’s only until you see them at school the next day. 

Facebook (especially Facebook messaging) and texting are connectors obvious here. But what’s more interesting to me is Snapchat — the mobile app that lets people capture videos and pictures that self destruct after a few seconds — because teens seem to use it when they don’t have anything in particular to share. 

For example, teens use Facebook messaging or texting more purposefully—say, to make plans or find out what homework they missed. But Snapchat seems more of an ambient shout out—sometimes silly, sometimes solicitous (“What do you think of this outfit?”), but always purely social. 

McDonalds is the latest big brand trying to use Snapchat. And all I can say is that I hope they are getting advice from a teenager. 

And more generally: If you are looking to use social media in innovative ways, ask the teenagers you know. 

At the very least, if you are a company looking to incorporate social media more seamlessly into your own marketing, hire these kids when they graduate! Technology expert danah boyd — who is keynoting the MarketingProfs B2B Forum this fall — told NPR two days ago that she almost called her new book about teens and the internet Like D’oh!, “because so many of the teenagers she interviewed think all of this is obvious.” 

In other words: Teenagers get it on a whole different level. Totally. 

If you have a teen or know one, what are you seeing? 

And if you are a teen, what did I miss?

Ann Handley 
As the world's first Chief Content Officer, Ann Handley speaks and writes about how you can rethink the way your business markets. Cited in Forbes as the most influential woman in Social Media and recognized by ForbesWoman as one of the top 20 women bloggers, Ann Handley is now the Chief Content Officer of MarketingProfs, a training and education company with the largest community of marketers in its category. 
She is a monthly columnist for Entrepreneur magazine, a member of the LinkedIn Influencer program , and the co-author of the best-selling book on content marketing, "Content Rules: How to Create Killer Blogs, Podcasts, Videos, Ebooks, Webinars (and More) That Engage Customers and Ignite Your Business". 

This article originally appeared at and is used here with permission. Sign up to get regular updates from Ann at

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