When our 17 year old office intern told me that she didn’t have a Facebook account, I could not have been more surprised. Isn’t this the generation who are supposed to be more social media savvy than any of us?
The truth is: they are. They’re just not on Facebook. But in 2008, when I was 17, Facebook was already changing the game: it had 145 million monthly users and by 2009, that number had more than doubled, with 360 million people logging on every month.
It recently reached a peak of one billion users in a day and boasts 1.49 billion active monthly users globally, but it’s clearly not offering the next generation what they want from a social network.
So our intern gathered a group of her 17 year old college friends, and we asked them to share their views on social media, which I then compared with the views of a group of my peers, who were aged between 20 and 30. It’s obviously not a definitive survey, involving thousands of responses, but a simple ‘temperature test’ to find out what’s hot and what’s not among the youth of North London.
When asked about their most used social network, Facebook was only mentioned by those aged between 20 and 30. Just half of 17 year olds we asked actually had a Facebook account. Instead, they preferred Snapchat (which they all used), closely followed by messaging service WhatsApp.
Asked why they liked WhatsApp, the answer was inevitably due to peer pressure – ‘everyone is on it’ – but it also emerged that the under 18s found it ‘the easiest [platform] to talk to people on.’ Instead of following users and conversations on Facebook, they preferred to create their own.
In these selfie-obsessed days, it is perhaps not surprising that picture-based apps are popular. Among the over 18s, it seems that Snapchat and Tumblr are most popular while under 18s substituted Tumblr for Instagram.
One 17 year old said Instagram was preferred because it was the ‘most visual and also only interactive with people you follow’, while another simply cited ‘pictures’ as a reason for liking it above other platforms. Snapchat was liked by one student because ‘it’s not very serious’.
When it comes to advertising on social media, young people have very strong views. Half of those aged under 18 that I polled said they would be unhappy to be advertised to on Instagram, while others expressed distaste for adverts on Tumblr, Snapchat or YouTube. Conversely, some said that they thought advertising worked on Facebook, YouTube and Twitter – platforms they appear to associate with an older audience.
Only one 17 year old liked any brand on social media, commending fashion brands, such as Sherri Hill, who they liked because the content was fresh, and updated every day with new pictures and images.
However, over 18s have a much clearer idea about what they wanted in terms of advertising. Inevitably, some were adamant that advertising doesn’t work on any platform while others said they didn’t mind as long as it was unobtrusive or they ‘can skip it after five seconds’.
Advertising on Facebook was the least liked. Indeed, one 24 year old even went so far as to call it ‘manipulative’.
Others found the prospect of advertising on WhatsApp annoying ‘because it feels like you’re having more personal conversations [there] than on Facebook.’
‘I think paid advertising usually doesn’t work on social media,’ said one. ‘I tend to scroll through it especially if I see it’s a sponsored post. But sometimes there’s a really clever, earned campaign or tweet in response to something by a brand which works really well.’
Another said: ‘I don’t follow any brands regularly on social. A few individual campaigns which come to mind are Snickers –You’re Not You When You’re Hungry, where they got celebrities to tweet weird stuff, which was a very clever use of the media, and Nokia’s Thanks Apple tweet, which capitalised really well on a big PR event. At the time it was big, now loads of brands do that sort of thing though and it’s got a bit tired.’
She added that the tone had been an important factor in those adverts, saying: ‘I guess [I liked them] talking to you on your level but without it seeming fake. Both did something clever and something different so that they could stand out.’
Other brands well-liked by over 18 year olds included Tinder, Cancer Research and Coca-Cola. They liked Coca-Cola for its content, such as ‘videos, pictures and funny stuff’, Cancer Research for creating ‘clever campaigns tailored to the medium (not just billboards on a screen)’ and Tinder because ‘they don’t talk like a brand’. Indeed, not talking like a brand and strong visual content seem to be themes that resonate with over 18s.
One 24 year old said he wasn’t a fan of following brands on social media, but thought that more creative advertising worked well. ‘I don’t really follow brands or companies on social media because I don’t want to subscribe to a channel of adverts. Coca-Cola are doing a good job by making everyone take pictures with those Coke bottles with names on and uploading them to social media. But I don’t ‘Like’ it or want to see it.’
His views were echoed by others, who said that brands whose advertising is prolific and overwhelming on social media are not well-received. However, they would follow celebrities.
One surprising success story, however, was that of transport companies on social media. They were praised for their ‘direct response to the consumer’ and the use of social media ‘to keep people up to date with any disruptions.’
With platforms like Instagram firmly on the ascendant, and more anecdotal evidence suggesting Facebook is plateauing (ecommerce consultancy Selfstartr recently posted a report saying that more than double the amount of users engaged with brands regularly on Instagram rather than on Facebook), brands would do well to listen to 17 year olds.
Their dependence on social media is less than those aged 18 and over and their attitude towards brands appears ambivalent at best. Whilst almost three quarters of 18 to 24 year olds said they were quite dependent on social media and ‘could probably cope without it for a day, but not much more’, just four in ten 17 year olds said the same. The same proportion said they’d miss it, but not much. Only 15 per cent of over 18s agreed.
Social media has been called a leveller before now, but with brands demanding so much of their audience, it seems the younger generation are starting to demand more back. They are going to need a reason if they’re going to consume brand content on social media.