Author   |    Speaker   |    Chief Content Officer

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.

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.)

Buzzfeed prom date

Then: You show up on the first day of college hoping your roommate isn’t a jerk. college class of 2018

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.

SnapchatFor 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?

Total Annarchy

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35 Responses to How to Innovate in Your Marketing: Ask a Teenager

  1. Daniel says:

    Great post! I think it’s extremely accurate and very telling. There are a few 21 – 23 year olds I’m friends with, and I’m constantly watching to see how they use social media. I think they don’t get the concepts of value and storytelling yet (especially since they keep posting selfies from the same angle every day) but whereas I wouldn’t use snapchat until I have something profound to say, they just use it.

    I do think that the word “Friend” has lost it’s meaning due to Facebook, and the in-depth “Real Talk” conversations aren’t happening as frequently or readily anymore. The true human connection is sadly lacking. Ted Rubin is right.

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  3. Heidi Cohen says:


    Thank you for taking us inside an important teen decision and how it’s evolved. Big thank you to your daughter as well.

    Another difference teens have is a broader array of products and virtual tools for seeing how they look. Before you were limited to what was available within driving distance of your home. Not everyone lived near a major city.

    Happy marketing,
    Heidi Cohen

  4. My 20 year old sister in law is a Sophomore in college. She’s also a cheerleader (aka popular kid) and is huuuge into Instagram and Vine. As someone in the content marketing space, I actually study her and her friend’s posts because they’re so darn spot-on. It’s really cool. These kids don’t read marketing books or blogs. They live in a social world. It’s just how they interact now. Great post, Ann!

  5. Richard Buse says:

    Great post!

    My stepdaughter is a bit older (26). She spent this past summer living with my Dad, who is 86. I spent parts of two weeks living with both of them. My stepdaughter’s phone is always with her, and it was just so fascinating to observe how she used it for virtually anything, including resolving any issues or concerns facing my Dad.

    I hate the term “reverse mentoring” because I don’t think opportunities to learn are dependent upon the teacher or the recipient’s age. All the same, there’s so much we can learn from observing those so comfortable with personal technology and online interactions.

    • Ann Handley says:

      I agree, Richard. It’s so easy to get caught up in our own bubble. Looking outside of it lends the necessary perspective.

      (BTW I think the inverse is also true: Observe those less comfortable with technology, too!)

      • Richard Buse says:


        I wholeheartedly agree with observing those less comfortable with technology, too. There is much we can learn 🙂

  6. Jeremy says:

    Here’s a good one: a young couple I know twit (email is no not now) each other BUT, when he decided to break up: HE SENT AN EMAIL. Wow. An email. He serious man. No twitter for the break-up. He had to show gravity.

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  8. Loved this post, Ann. It reminded me of a conversation I had recently. The person I was speaking with mentioned an idea she’d read somewhere about the benefits of partnering with a young person for mentoring–but not to mentor the young person as much as to learn from them. I thought it intriguing. Still do.

    My son, who is now 21 so not technically still a teen, is chock full of creative marketing ideas and also uses social and digital tools easily and often. Getting his perspective on things is often eye opening and helps me look at things differently. Glad I have him as a resource!

    • Ann Handley says:

      Love that idea, Allen!

      Your boy is clearly young at heart! My oldest is the same age as your boy, and it’s funny how much of a difference even 5 years makes in Internet time, in our house, anyway. He remembers a time pre-internet; she doesn’t. Things like that private prom dress group even blew HIM away… funny, right?

  9. Traci Browne says:

    I’m still reeling over the fact that Austin’s High School has a marketing class! That says a lot about this generation.

    • Bethann Cancellieri says:

      The Marketing class is a two-year program in the Career Technical Center at Dover High School. Students learn the principles of marketing and run the student store. One of the senior’s projects is to fund raise for and plan Project Graduation. Many of the students go on to major in Business, Marketing, and Advertising.
      There are some great options for students in Career Technical Education. People would be amazed at the great stuff that is happening in high schools.

  10. Kathy Miranda says:

    You are spot on, Ann. I have a 16 yr old, 19 yr old and 27 yr old. I am always checking with them for the latest social media ideas. When we adults are just sticking our big toe in the water, they’re diving head first off the high dive.

  11. My 15 year old daughter enlightened me with her use of Snapchat and Vine, and its from observing her that I know Tumblr, Twitter and Instagram are more important than Facebook to teens. She also exposed me to a whole new chapter in comedy from the online world that includes Megan Amram (who now writes for Parks and Rec and was hired due to her funny tweets), @MirandaSings, Hannah Hart, Mamrie Hart and Grace Helbig. In fact here is Grace is doing a hysterical and amazing commercial for St Ives which must be online only because its not at :30, its not a :10. Its a 1:46 and ever second is engaging:

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  14. Steve Faber says:


    It starts even younger. Possibly due to my deficient parenting skills, my 11 and 12 year olds have embraced social media wholeheartedly. As a marketer it warms my heart. As a parent, it scares me somewhat. My 11 year old introduced me to Vine and Prezi. Shouldn’t I be showing them these things? After all, I’ve been heavily involved in the online world since before years started with a “2”.

    Kids plain communicate differently now. My 12 year old thinks communicating means group chats on x-box live while playing Call of Duty Ghosts, while second screening Faceook on his Kindle. My wife says he should be reading instead of using his Kindle, and I try to explain that Kindle IS a reading platform, not simply for games and YouTube. E-Books are how the new generation reads, and trees rejoice.

    My11 year old is loathe to appear without her iPOD touch, lest she escape the ability to Facetime, or lose touch with YouTube. Things are different now. In fact, they are just that, NOW! Brands are trying to tap into the immediate influence of social media could do worse than embracing “Take Your Kids to Work Day”. Maybe CMOs could make it a regular part of their routine.

    Nice post, thanks!

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  22. Nancy Flowers says:

    Fantastic post Ann. I agree with you one hundred percent. Companies should see how teenagers are using social media and copy them. Like you said teens are living their life when they use social media, and not doing content marketing like big corporations. In my opinion that is why some companies are having trouble with their social media campaigns.

  23. Jodi Cruz says:

    Even though teenagers do know how to use social media creatively, I feel like millennials shouldn’t rely on them to create good content. Yes, it’s great for companies to understand how younger generations are using social media, but it doesn’t necessarily mean that they know how to implement a successful marketing strategy. For instance, it doesn’t really make sense for Barnes and Noble to hop on Snapchat just because there are a lot of users on that particular social media outlet. Would they just take snaps of people reading?

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