How (not) to appeal to young people in your writing
Updated: Apr 20
Apparently, slime is a thing.
It can be scented, coloured, themed. It has its own conference where people buy, trade, and perform tricks with it. Slimers have thousands, even millions of views on YouTube.
Of course, we couldn’t expect you to know much about slime. Or Mewing. Or TikTok. Or VSCO. Or Fortnite. Or any other random trend that only young people are cool enough to understand. Or language that shapeshifts so fast any attempt to flex will have you looking thirsty periodt.
Is it time you stopped trying?
Here are a few signs you’ll never truly be able to relate to Gen Z:
· you remember the noise of a dial-up modem
· you have fond memories of renting a film from a physical shop
· you don’t believe esports is a thing
· your idea of a good career is ‘lawyer, doctor, banker’, not ‘YouTuber’
Remember, these are people who have only ever known the internet. Their idea of normal politics is Brexit and Trump. Their entire future has been ruined by people from older generations ignoring scientists and not installing double glazing soon enough.
In short, they’re very different from you and me.
Sure, you’ve heard of PUBG. You might have even tried to Floss when you went on that night out last year. But you’ll never pass yourself off as a 16-year-old.
A lot of marketers try to convince themselves they know what young people want. At best, you’ll spend a lot of time researching things that only get mediocre results. At worst, you’ll be a laughing stock.
We think there’s a better approach. One that even the most hardcore slimer can relate to.
If you’re old (>25), own it. You don’t have to know about every latest trend. Just be a genuine person or company that people can believe in and listen to. Vans have been going since 1966 and they’re still cool.
In fact, there are loads of examples of businesses becoming unexpectedly successful simply because they’re not trying too hard to market to young people. Sportswear brands like Kappa and Diadora somehow came back. Birkenstock, Polaroid… staying true to your roots can be far more successful than trying (and failing) to appeal to young people.
We’re not saying you shouldn’t give new things a go. Emerging platforms and viral campaigns can work if you choose the right one and put the effort in. And if profits are slowing or you’re losing subscribers, of course you need to shake things up a bit. But jumping on every bandwagon won’t solve anything.
Fortunately, authenticity in writing is one of the more straightforward qualities to get right.
· Slang words you wouldn’t use yourself – you’ll probably be a year too late anyway
· Talking about some trend you don’t really know anything about – chances are you’ll make some sort of embarrassing mistake
· Using too many emojis – this is a dead giveaway that you’re trying too hard
· Referencing songs or artists you’ve barely heard of – we all know you don’t listen to Billie Eilish
· Using a social media platform that none of your friends or colleagues use – stick to what you know
· Use normal, everyday conversational language without trying to sound like someone else
· Write about things you have direct experience of or can really talk about passionately – there’s no predicting when something old-fashioned like cassettes will be cool again (hint: now)
· Stick to your strengths – if you have a great email database, for example, use it
· Exploit your quirks – the things that make you or your company unique are the things that will make you stand out
Authenticity only works if you’re consistent. If one of your team writes like Innocent smoothies, using stupid jokes and cutesy language, your readers will be very confused when they hear from someone else who writes like an old-school accountant.
Consistency is one of the main benefits of a comprehensive tone of voice guide. Authenticity is easy when you have a clear identity for your brand with rules to stick to.
If you don’t have a tone of voice document, just use your common sense. If it seems out of character for your organisation, don’t write it.
· If your brand is usually very serious, humour sticks out like a sore thumb – don’t do it
· Don’t impose your own grammar preferences if everyone else in the organisation does things a certain way
· Mistakes look unprofessional. Use Grammarly or ask someone to read your work
· If you’re scrapping your brand identity and starting again, keep everyone in the loop! People don’t like change
· Follow the consensus when it comes to style – everyone has their own preference, but the company comes first
· Develop a tone of voice guide and run training sessions so everyone is on board
Although we usually encourage people to think carefully about their audience, being authentic is one case where you shouldn’t be too considerate of them.
You can do all the customer research you want, but, at the end of the day, what your business sounds like is up to you. Like that strict school teacher that everyone loved, sometimes just sticking to your guns and not pandering to anyone else can command a lot of respect.
· ‘Meet people where they are’ doesn’t always work – lots of young people have abandoned Facebook because their parents are on it, so don’t try to get involved in every new social app
· Changing your tone to copy what everyone else is doing – for example, wackaging is overdone now and doesn’t stand out
· Taking every single bit of feedback onboard – sometimes people just can’t be trusted (remember Boaty McBoatface?)
· Whatever you want
So there you have it. Not a single bit of up-to-date advice on how to appeal to young people – and that’s the point. You don’t have to stay up-to-date with every trend, just try to be an authentic and consistent brand with plenty of self-confidence. If young people don’t come flocking to you, well, what do they know?