OPINION1 February 2018

What does real media look like?

Media Opinion Trends UK Youth

Hook Research’s Debbie Bray explains why authenticity is so important to today’s kids and teens.

Teenagers taking selfie

As youth media specialists, we talk to a lot of kids and teens on a weekly basis. A theme that came up time and time again in 2017 was a focus on ‘authenticity’ – the lauding of real, raw and honest content.

The 2018 MRS Kids & Youth Research Conference allowed us to sit down with three of our clients – Ranja Mohyieldin, director of fan engagement & insights EMEA at Turner; Siobhan McMenemy, audience research manager at BBC Radio 1, 1Xtra and Asian Network; and Ben Marsden, head of audience research & insight at Channel 4 – and have a practical conversation about how these youth-brands have responded to this desire for ‘authenticity’ among young audiences, and what shape this subject might take as we progress through 2018. Here are some of their insights:

Transparency is key

Raised in the age of social media, today’s young people are hyperaware of self-expression. As efficient self-branders, claimed Marsden, they are particularly adept at spotting the difference between image and reality – and they’re coalescing around the entities that project unadulterated versions of themselves: “You can’t expect for them to watch and see the artifice then just go with it.”

Each speaker talked about how social media’s new-found ubiquity and its ability to move aside the curtain on people’s private spaces has helped create a new form of ‘celebrity’. Scarlett Moffatt, JoJo Siwa, Logan Paul – this new cohort of celebrities draws their cultural capital from being everyday people who are more than willing to share their (allegedly) unfiltered lives and opinions with their audiences. Musicians like Adele or Stormzy have tapped into this as well: “They’re not saying things because their label wants them to say it,” said McMenemy, “they’re saying it because they believe in it.”

Yet these what-you-see-is-what-you-get figures contrast wildly with another group who were branded ‘authentic’ in 2017 – the image-obsessed cast of Love Island. However, as Marsden pointed out, what the programme manages to create is a commentary on its own fakeness – “it doesn’t try to hide it”. From regular makeup breaks, to clear use of microphones: letting viewers in on the production process – embracing transparency – tapped into those ‘authentic’ values that viewers crave.

Real means relevant

For many young people, ‘real’ characters or storylines are often defined by how closely they capture or sympathise with audiences’ lives. Mohyieldin talked about how “relatability is key for kids… that’s what they are seeking out” while McMenemy noted the “everyday relevance” of radio that connects with listeners. Yet the rise of social media and the splintering of young peoples’ media worlds is morphing what ‘relevance’ looks like today.

McMenemy said: “real-life has a breadth of stuff in there.” Whereas in previous generations teens might define themselves by singular, stereotypical characteristics – the jock, the nerd, the emo – these have given way to something more nuanced: “Now you can be into philosophy, hugely into dance, and collect trainers and show the world all of it in different ways.” Just as social media has opened windows into celebrities’ worlds, it has similarly allowed young people to embrace their unique interests and show off their multi-faceted personalities.

‘Real’ content needs to speak to these nuanced natures of audiences’ personalities. This is as true for teens as it is for younger media consumers: speaking on the recent re-launch of Cartoon Network’s Powerpuff Girls, Mohyieldin described how the distinct personalities of the titular characters resonated strongly with viewers because they could align themselves with each girl according to their affinity.

What does this mean for 2018?

Across the board, the speakers were clear: media brands need to be willing to engage in lots of trial and error to figure out how they can create real, relevant content in an open and transparent way. Obviously, this requires a bit of risk: “Finding new talent, being open to those real people” argued Marsden, “sometimes it will work, sometimes it won’t”.

But with this risk comes great reward – allowing media brands to create powerful, resonant content that their young audiences will absolutely love for years to come.

Debbie Bray is co-founder of Hook Research