FEATURE30 April 2012

Tribal gathering

Street Rats. Blingers. Townies, Geeks and Skaters. Rahs, Ravers and Boy Racers. You might think all young people are the same, but Channel 4 has an array of data to demonstrate otherwise.

For the past seven years the broadcaster has been slicing and dicing the 16- to 24-year-old demographic, working with former NME journalist turned researcher Andy Crysell to pinpoint and understand the various tribes that exist within youth culture.

Crysell and colleagues at Crowd DNA have identified 23 groups in all. For each tribe they have collected data on the brands they buy, the media they consume and the celebrities they admire.

Townies are the biggest group by far – a group the majority of the population are born in to, “unless, perhaps, your parents are artists, musicians or eccentrics”, notes the website UKTribes.com. “It’s your choice then if you want to become a Skater or an Emo, or whatever else,” says Crysell.

The choice is yours
Picking a tribe isn’t a one-time-only deal. There is a fluidity to membership now that would have seemed out of place in the days when young people fell into one of two bitterly divided camps, like Mods or Rockers.

“It’s so easy to dip into other cultures now because of the internet,” says Neil Taylor, Channel 4’s senior research executive. “And I think youth lasts longer as well, so people have more time to switch between tribes,” adds Crysell.

“In the days of the Mods and Rockers you were probably only one or the other for two years, then you got a job and you left your youth behind, whereas now youth is a much more extended period of time.”

This extended youth – a period where most people lack responsibilities but have a sufficient amount of disposable income – is like the golden age for advertisers. As big consumers of media, young people aren’t difficult to access.

“But it’s the amount of ways you can reach them now that is one of the biggest challenges,” says Taylor.

“Advertisers need to understand which media is best for reaching which groups of young people. The proliferation of the internet and other forms of digital media has given them a lot of opportunities but it’s also given them a lot of headaches.”

This is where the UK Tribes work comes into play, says Taylor. It’s designed as a tool to help Channel 4’s advertisers understand the youth audience in all its various guises. “They can come to us and we can tell them that a Geek or a Raver or a Boy Racer likes this type of programme, they all like this type of channel and so forth.”

Geeks, for instance, are heavy internet users, magazine and newspaper readers and cinemagoers, but are light on TV consumption. They like Twitter, Flickr and XFM, eBay and Converse, whereas Ravers are much better disposed to radio shows and magazines like MixMag, club brands like Cream and GodsKitchen, and fashion retailers like Diesel and Urban Outfitters.

Helping advertisers target these tribes is an area of considerable focus for Crowd DNA and Channel 4. The 2010 wave of the project took the form of a nationally representative survey of young people which allowed the teams to fuse their data with the Target Group Index planning tool. Advertisers can now easily find out which of five planning segments – urban, mainstream, aspirant mainstream, alternative and leading edge – their tribes of interest fall into.

For 2012, Taylor says Channel 4 is considering ways of improving the targeting capabilities. “The practicalities may prove difficult,” he says, “but we’re looking – and I stress, only looking at this stage – to see if we can offer realistic targeting on our video-on-demand platform based on our tribal segments.”

4 on Demand ( 4oD) has upwards of three million registered users, says Taylor. “The idea is that we could say to an advertiser, ‘If you want to specifically target the mainstream segment we can match that with our registered users and help you actually reach them there.’”

United tribes
The story of UK Tribes has been one of continual evolution. Over the years Taylor, Crysell and colleagues have shown a willingness to try new approaches and shake things up to make sure the research continues to grab the attention of advertisers – and internally at Channel 4, where the data might feed into the marketing, commissioning and scheduling of new programmes or channels.

“Advertisers need to understand which media is best for reaching which groups of young people. The internet and other forms of digital media has given them a lot of opportunities but it’s also given them a lot of headaches”

No two waves of the project are ever the same. After the quant survey of 2010, last year saw Crowd DNA recruit 50 young people to keep a video diary for six weeks. The result was 32 hours of footage where respondents – mostly on their own, but sometimes with friends – discussed identity, gaming, hopes, fears, leisure activities and purchase behaviour.

It proved to be an ideal time to open this kind of personal window into the lives of young people. The tight labour market, the result of a sluggish economy, is hitting the younger generation particularly hard, especially school and university-leavers who are finding it tough to get a job.

Taylor said: “When we asked them the hopes and fears questions 20 or so of the 50 respondents – completely unprompted – used this term the ‘university bubble’. They had this real fear about what would happen to them once they left university because of the poor jobs market.”

The same pressures that threaten to burst the university bubble are also pushing the tribes closer together, says Crysell. The outward signs of tribal identity – clothes, music, hairstyle – remain in place, but there’s a greater consensus among young people politically. They share common cause in being dissatisfied with the state of the world, says Crysell.

Under pressure
As yet, it’s too early to tell whether these social and economic factors will lead to the birth of new tribes or the collapse of others, but the team at Channel 4 and Crowd DNA are hoping to embark on a full review soon.

Crysell explains that there are always new tribes “bubbling under”, tribes that have been considered but have never quite made it on to the map (see boxout). “Every time we have a review we basically look to assess the validity of each tribe. We do desk research, get expert opinion and then we would look for evidence that the tribe actually exists.”

Importantly, he says: “We want tribes that have sufficient size to them. We’re trying to make sure this isn’t just a London-focused thing; it should feel very representative of the UK as a whole. And we want tribes that are going to last a reasonable amount of time.”

The outs and ins of UK tribes

Many youth tribes are closely linked to fashion and music trends. So they wax and wane in popularity along with their inspirations. Two tribes have been “archived” since the study began – Bhangra Muffins and Goths. “We couldn’t find a Goth under the age of about 30, that was the problem,” says Crysell.

Other tribes have found themselves undergoing a resurgence. Taylor points to the Casuals as an example: “The inheritors of [ 90s] lad-mag culture – boozy, smartly dressed, football-mad and largely mainstream in terms of music and TV tastes”.

And then there are those tribes that fail to make their mark. Taylor says youth culture in the United States can often be an indicator of future UK developments. “I remember a year or two ago there was one tribe we thought would cross over and that was the Vampire Kids,” he says. “I thought they might come to prominence what with the success of the Twilight Saga, but they never did.”