April 13, 2001 / Coverage / Spring 2001

Know Your Audience

Written by Amy Morgan

When yearbook editors sit down to create their ladder, the concept of market research probably never crosses their minds.

Maybe it should.

Advertisers have realized the enormous buying power possessed by teenagers and they have figured out how to use it to their advantage. Extensive research has helped determine teen spending habits in terms of time, money and priorities.

Yearbook staffs can follow suit. Market research puts advertisers in touch with their target audience and allows them to communicate their message more effectively.

Yearbook staffs are always looking for a way to do just that. We spend hours creating a ladder, determining coverage and selecting angles. Are we telling the student bodies the stories they want to hear? We hope so, but we do not really know until yearbook distribution.

Market research can tell us what our readers want before it is too late.

“Market research can give us an indication of what kids are interested in,” Jim McCrossen, adviser of the Blue Valley Northwest H.S., Overland Park, Kan., Horizon yearbook, said. “A lot of times when you ask kids what they do, they say ‘I dunno,’ but as an adviser, I can reply ‘research shows 75 percent of kids your age see two movies a week,’ and then they say ‘yeah, I see movies a lot…'”

Surveys, interviews and focus groups could all help staffs determine how to best meet their readers’ needs. Staffs should select students from different social groups to ensure diversity.

In addition to brand preferences and spending habits, market research has helped determine how teenagers spend their time, who they talk to, what they talk about, what they fear and what they value.

A good yearbook should include all of these things. All too often, yearbook stories reflect the ideas and values of the yearbook staff members, but do not meet the needs of the diverse readership found in many high schools today.

“I think it is a valuable tool in many ways,” Becky Lucas, adviser of the Indian, Shawnee Mission North H.S., Overland Park, Kan., said. “It would be a great historical tool for the student life section. I can see including statistics as historical data or reference, say, every four years. Kids can see if they were normal in their spending habits, and remember what it was like at that time.”

In addition to utilizing research strategies, staffs can use the information obtained from professional marketing research studies. A simple Internet search pulls up numerous pages of research and statistics about teenagers.

The groups known as Teen Research Unlimited (www.teenresearch.com) and The Gallup Poll (www.gallup.com) are two of many agencies that publish studies involving teen research.

Gallup Polls have been released dealing with the increase of fighting and violence in schools, relationships with parents and a history quiz, matching teenagers against adults. They also publish a subscription newsletter  called “Youth Views” 10 times a year and have a book titled America’s Youth in the 1990s.

Staffs could utilize these resources to brainstorm story ideas and realize what their readers want to know.

Twice a year, Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) completes a study to track teen trends, lifestyles, attitudes, product, and media behavior. They seek to keep their clients in touch with the teen market, telling them what is cool, how they spend their time and money, what brands they are loyal to, and even what they aspire to be.

Makers of over 100 leading brands subscribe to the study, for which TRU has interviewed more than 300,000 teenagers.

Yearbook staffs clearly do not have time to conduct such thorough research. However, what they can do is use it to generate ideas.

One possibility is to localize statistics provided in research studies. For example, is it true for students at your school that clothing makes up the biggest chunk of teen spending? Staffs could find out by doing their own research and comparing it to the professional studies.

“Marketing people find out what kids like. They introduce new products and events into their lives,” Terry Nelson, adviser of the Miskodeed, Mishawaka H.S., Mishawka, Ind., said. “They have done the research for us. We can take what they find out and use it to generate our ideas.” Market research statistics will also help staffs identify if they are appealing to both genders. According to TRU, girls are more confiding in their friends than boys are, and girls trade more in emotion with their friends while boys’ conversations center more on the rational.

Coverage should be geared towards both genders, and market research can help get everyone’s attention. This does not mean that stories should focus on sports for boys and fashion for girls.

An example of a story that would incorporate both genders would be a narrative of a boy and a girl getting ready for a dance. It would show the contrast between the amount of time (and money) spent by each gender, the different steps they go through and how they approach the situation.

Likewise, consider the age differences in your school. The TRU study says younger teens talk to friends about movies, sports, school and who they want to go out with, while older teens talk about jobs, emotions and college.

Most staffs are led by upperclassmen, so it is possible younger voices get lost in the shuffle. The yearbook should appeal to all age groups, not just the graduating seniors.

Although McCrossen sees the value in identifying what readers want, he warns against sacrificing the journalistic integrity of the yearbook.

“It would be interesting to see what they want, but what students want is not always what you can do in your yearbook. I think at some point that would conflict with journalistically sound coverage and proper design and layout principles,” McCrossen said.

Nelson suggests looking to magazines, stories and ads for ideas.

“I read articles and think ‘this might be something the kids could do,'” she said.

It is true that yearbook and advertising exist for different purposes, but both can make use of market research.

Market research and analysis gives us one more place to look for story ideas and another way to identify with our readers.


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Amy Morgan