Like most adults, marketers do their best to understand teens, but it’s not easy to follow their changing digital habits and preferences. Twenty-year-old Tiffany Zhong recently left the University of California, Berkeley, and founded Zebra Intelligence to do just that—help marketers keep up with this cohort. Zhong spoke with eMarketer’s Maria Minsker about why teens are over Facebook, what annoys them most online and why marketers shouldn’t underestimate this demographic.
eMarketer: Adults often accuse teens of having short attention spans. Is this why teens cycle through new social media apps so quickly?
Tiffany Zhong: Teens do cycle through apps quickly, but it’s not because of short attention spans. It’s because the novelty just wears off. With an app, unless new, fun features are added to keep users engaged, users are going to leave, which is exactly what happened to Houseparty [a group video chat app]. That’s why Snap and Instagram are iterating and adding new features quickly. They’re adding new augmented reality filters and trying to be different and fun.
“Facebook has become a place where everyone posts everything. There’s no filter to it anymore.”
eMarketer: What’s going on with Facebook? Are teens still using it?
Zhong: Facebook has become a place where everyone posts everything. There’s no filter to it anymore. When teens go on Instagram or Snapchat, they know what to expect. Facebook has become a mixture of low-quality, random things. Often it’s content that’s just irrelevant to their lives.
Plus, posting on Facebook is less ephemeral than sharing a Snap that will disappear. And if teens are already posting on Instagram, they’re not going to post on Facebook as well. It’s overkill. Teens do, however, still use Facebook for Messenger and Groups—those are the top two use cases for Facebook with this generation.
eMarketer: Are teens shifting away from social networks that broadcast to big groups of followers in favor of more private environments like Snapchat?
Zhong: Yes, there’s a shift, but there’s always going to be a need for both. In some instances, teens like having a platform where they can post something that will be distributed to their 1,000 friends. There’s social validation that comes with that. They use different platforms for different reasons, so their preference depends on the use case.
eMarketer: Parents worry about their teens using social media because of cyberbullying. How big of a problem is it?
Zhong: It’s a huge problem. Platforms like Twitter have not done a good job minimizing bullying, and that has driven users away. It happens everywhere, but it’s particularly bad on Twitter. There are negative comments, directed hate and directed trolling. It just makes the experience bad for everyone.
“Kids are smart, and they can tell the difference between a good and bad ad.”
eMarketer: Do parents of teens worry about the right things when it comes to digital media?
Zhong: It’s funny because a couple of years ago, parents would always say, “Don’t meet strangers off the internet,” and look at how we’ve evolved. Tinder has made that a totally normal thing. Parents are still worried about their children getting kidnapped and other worst-case scenarios, so they are still worried about the right things. There’s just a different environment now that they have to be aware of.
eMarketer: Do teens find ads to be annoying and intrusive, or are they OK with seeing them?
Zhong: It depends on the ads. Influencer ads spam our Instagram feeds, but teens will take those over generic ads any day. The key to a good ad is it has to be engaging, natural and on-brand. Brands can’t do what Pepsi and Kendall Jenner did, because it was completely off-brand for both parties. It has to be embedded into content, it has to be relatable and it has to be short. Kids are smart, and they can tell the difference between a good and bad ad.