Marketing Research: What Can We Learn from the Youth Market?

Me, myself … and the “I” generation

By Barbara Gassaway

Executive Summary

The offspring of late baby boomers and early Gen X have been labeled the “i-Generation,” or “Gen I.”  This tech-savvy group is aware of the ills of the world, demonstrates signs of social consciousness and communicates a personal responsibility to contribute. Engaging them requires the employment of practices that jive with their temperaments. They tend to embrace change, presume the pace will move quickly and place a high premium on making everything less “boring.” Understanding their unique characteristics will help researchers learn more from this fascinating generation.

For the past two decades, one of my primary areas of research has involved interviewing youth—the ages that serve as a bridge between the innocence of childhood and the reality that clicks in hard after becoming an adult. I have experienced and reported on many influential culture shifts, but nothing quite as powerful as what exists among youth today.

In the current stimulus-on-steroids world of conspicuous consumption, how do marketers reach the generation following the still-perplexing Millennials? It’s important to begin with a foundation of societal appreciation. In addition to a virtual world, exposure to the 21st century real world of war, economic awareness, shifts in family composition, ambitious responsibilities and an overall more casual society significantly influences every attitude and behavior.

The offspring of late baby boomers and early Gen X have been labeled the iGeneration,” or “Gen I.”  Although no one of significant demographic authority has confirmed my projection, for purposes of this article, let’s assume Gen I begins somewhere around 1992-93 and runs through 2003. (For those younger than eight years old, we rely more on parental insights.)

The middle class Gen I is obviously tech-savvy. They upgrade software as a practice, are as likely as their parents to have the latest smartphone version and can easily navigate any new downloaded app with little instruction. Similar to Gen Y, Gen I tends to:

  • be conditioned by a well-intentioned theory of building esteem whereby even the smallest of successes are recognized and often over celebrated, creating a need for feedback and reassurance;
  • be excessively scheduled, culturally exposed and somewhat well-traveled; they are sophisticated and seemingly mature; however, most appreciate opportunities for ageappropriately play in a comfortable setting;
  • live in non-traditional households, with greater than 50 percent comprised of blended families, single parents or (less often) same-sex parents; they flow from their houses to those of friends with same or different family structures and view them all as normal; and
  • understand the power of brands, whether they embrace or reject the respective status.

Compared to latchkey Gen X and overprotected Gen Y, Gen I is unique because they also tend to:

  • have perpetual connection (attached via smartphone even when sleeping) to their electronic communities;
  • be conditioned to prefer written communication over verbal (choosing texting over speaking, sometimes even when a communicating peer recipient is close by);
  • •      be team players (the opposite of Gen X) participating in group recreational activities from very early ages; many academic settings have adopted group learning and aptitude segmentation approaches that also cultivate group dynamic acclimation;
  • have access to immense variety and, importantly, the authority of choice in virtually all aspects of their lives; economically savvy Gen I is exposed to media on demand, revolving online subscriptions (like iTunes) using parents’ stored credit cards and personal debit cards for school lunches and other purchases;
  • be desensitized to graphically offensive, mature and sexual content; even if stricter parents limit television exposure, Gen I typically has no obstacles or barriers to electronic or music content;
  • be comparatively less conscious of ethnic, gender and age differences; Gen I is highly tolerant, embraces diversity and typically associates prejudices with ignorance and distain. “We’re all the same… we’re all different. Get over yourself if you think you’re better!”  and
  • have unprecedented influence on household spending, with many possessing impressive self-allocated discretionary dollars. Middle class Gen I parents expect children, especially teens, to make their own purchase decisions. Cash, gift cards, merchant cards and even parents’ credit cards are freely provided to purchase everything from fast food and clothing to video games and electronics.

It is my experience that Gen I are no more “me-centric” than the rest of us. Interestingly, I find baby boomer parents have greater tendencies to be comparatively more self-serving than younger Gen X, Y or I. Lack of “time” tends to be their default rationale. Gen I is aware of the 3 ills of the world, demonstrates signs of social consciousness, such as recycling and community service, and communicates a personal responsibility to contribute.

Gen I Posture

Any generalization, be it about ethnic groups or generations, must take into account individual differences. That said, understanding the posture of Gen I when embarking on efforts to engage this unique generation requires an adaptation of preparation, pace and perhaps a politely suggested shift in biased perceptions.

Technology and parents with burdened schedules have produced independent thinkers and good researchers or, at the very least, great locators. Gen I is knowledgeable about resources and where to turn to learn about anything. Knowledge is often broad in reach but shallow in depth. That is, Gen I tends to know a little about a lot of subjects. This results in an ability to easily offer a variety of methods to approach or think about an idea or subject. You need to screen for critical thinkers, as the masses will require access to resources to articulate beyond surface knowledge (although critical thinkers are a challenge to find among any segment). They are typically self-sufficient (like Gen X), but differ in an attitude that can be misinterpreted as spoiled. I prefer to think about this attitude as aptitude, or a unique capacity to know themselves at an early age. Not quite self-actualization, but expedited beyond previous generations on a selfawareness path.

Gen I is adaptable and expects variety and change early and often. Once engaged, this generation will go with the flow and roll with the punches. They presume the pace will move quickly, embrace transformations and spontaneously offer ideas to make things easier, more fun and, most important, less “boring.” Status quo is a foreign concept as Gen I bores very easily. Once you lose them, recovering them will require a physical shift.

What to Expect

It is easy to connect and build rapport with Gen I once you employ practices that jive with their temperaments. Understanding their characteristics will provide opportunities to learn more from this fascinating generation.

As Gen I is sophisticated and conditioned to expect reasoning, a “need to understand the consequence” is important if deeper meaning or emotive rationale is to be gained. An understanding of the reason behind the questions to follow will yield deeper insights more efficiently; that is, share the “reason I need to know” or “your opinion/contribution/idea is important because …” early on. It may be necessary to provide the reasons beyond the initial study purpose. When questioning takes on a different direction, revealing purpose when 4 appropriate will save time and provide opportunities for deeper insights. Sharing purpose creates a partnership environment where respondents are “in on the process” as it is being created. This practice provides a foundation for ownership that will yield engagement and deeper insight moving forward. It establishes momentum, allowing respondents to move independently on topic or task with less moderator influence and greater respondent contributions.

Maintaining a 15-minute intervention rule incorporating exercises that engage Gen I respondents beyond a verbal dialogue is extremely important. Laddering exercises that begin with writing (their default communication tool) and evolve to include verbal and physical elaboration will produce rich insights. It is prudent to be prepared with alternate exercises so a transition in the event of boredom quickly recovers to reengagement.

Immediate gratification takes on a new meaning within Gen I, as does its emotive companion, sense of entitlement. As with the “spoiled” example, I prefer to adopt my “aptitude for self-awareness” theory and approach subject matter accordingly. By reframing “spoiled” into something useful, the researcher is able to see beyond posturing and recognize the vulnerable confidence presented by this age group. If a child respondent states, “My parents always give me what I want,” be sure to probe. You may discover the statement is true for dinner, but not at the mall. Again, individual differences will emerge and your own biases need to be eliminated. For example, you may be prepared to react to cocky, but I recommend you think about it as spirited. If you feel a comment is condescending, it’s possible that you’ve broken the emotive wall down and they are treating you as a peer. Gen I is comfortable speaking with conviction, yet flexible and comfortable with their own shift in perspective based on additional thought or questioning. A reframed researcher mind-set will open doors to discovery of emotions and behaviors that exist beneath the initial thoughts.

Like most human beings, Gen I requires social validation (which occurs in seconds on social networks—reinforcing immediate gratification). You can use these to a research advantage by incorporating reassurance (“good job” or “keep it coming” to the group), using their names often, breaking for a reward or treat or providing immediate peer evaluations. Probes such as, “How would John’s idea change his status/vibe?” work well. Hand-held respondent voting evaluations (with various pre-selected positive vibes) can provide immediate social validation and energize input. If “vibe cards” are to be used for respondent input evaluation, be sure they are on the positive side as to not discourage participation. Vibes such as “Awesome,” “Fresh,” “New,” “Breezy,” and/or “Clean” are some vibes that work well (and of course can be probed for data digging). Each respondent receives a set of vibe cards with instructions to flag them when a comment or idea hits that compelling vibe.


Even the youngest members of Gen I understand advertising, with many comprehending they are a target audience. This, along with their other sophistications, creates an educated group of savvy evaluators. They easily project imagery to a real-life reference and, with patience, can often relate it to an emotional place. Variety and creativity in executions is critical, as Gen I does not spare criticisms and will quickly dismiss concepts without relevance or meaning. Advising clients in project planning stages to prepare multiple executions (variety of images, colors, headlines, tag lines) of the same concept is critical so they are not rejected for the wrong reasons. If you are limited to one medium, hard-copy boards work better than electronically projected images. The ability to feel the stimulus, share it and pass it around engages respondents more fully because it utilizes multiple senses and stimulates thought-provoking data. If you have the ability to present stimulus in both mediums, and, even better, include images and audio, enhanced comprehension will benefit because it mirrors the real world.

Gen I’s intimacy with technology should be incorporated into stimulus and methodologies. Social network communities, IMs, video (YouTube), music and smartphone applications are common communication tools. Pre-session image diaries, video diaries, texted responses that flash on a wall or monitor, analogy exercises that use popular icons and apps that capture respondent data are all useful Gen I engagement enhancers. It is critical to utilize social tools of the culture both in language used and framing data contribution options. As Gen I vernacular is ever-changing, it is important to include a ground rule whereby you give blanket permission to correct your terms and abbreviations.

Desensitized to graphics formerly deemed offensive or off-color, Gen I is unlikely to be shocked within an age-appropriate rating. An older target audience or alternative motive goal will better serve your project. There is a well-known theory that Gen I (as an extension of Gen Y) is a throwback to traditional family values. I’m still on the fence about its validity but agree this generation is seemingly more conventional in many aspects as compared to Gen X. Perhaps an element of my own bias exists here in that tattoos and piercings are fairly common, even among tweens. Obviously I’m not Gen I, and, graphically speaking, maybe my perspective requires a shift.

Exercises That Work

Incorporating projective exercises can yield data to forward the discussion and provide clients with deep insights. Again, it’s often best to begin the line of questioning with responses in writing, then branch off into the land of elaboration.

Apples to Apples cards. Mattel has done the work for us by providing thousands of cards with words, from adjectives and verbs to celebrities and famous places. “Select the card that represents … ” well, almost anything. The data value lives in the reason for selection, not the term itself. There are too many exercises to mention here, but these cards are a godsend for all audiences!

Props. You can require that respondents bring an item that represents how they feel about a topic/idea/product category. Or have the facility provide tools where respondents can select one that most closely represents their feelings. My personal favorites are Guitar Hero instruments (without connection to the games). Respondents can project (current or contrived) song lyrics to convey their feelings. Tools or items that represent “competing” elements can create rich organic dialogue during role play, such as team-merchandised jerseys and hats, two genders of dolls or even large/small-men’s/women’s slippers. It creates a debate-type role play where much is learned about opposing views. As with all role play, the moderator has to navigate to purpose, which is posted visually on the flip chart in writing for all to see.

Internet search races. Divide your group into two (with like number of laptops) and provide a time limit. The group selects two people—the navigator and the secretary. The task may be to locate information on a product category or topic or to find a related video that represents your view. The navigator with group input searches and the secretary records sites and URLs. (You can have a printer attached for easier record keeping and presentation.) The data not only lives in results of mining, but importantly in respondent’s associations and rationale following the exploration.

Competitive challenges. This is part energy booster, part data collection. The competition can be evaluative or exploratory and can easily absorb precious time. Stopwatches expedite the exercise and enhance anticipation. My inexpensive default option is one where I provide a variety of typed phrases (colors, songs, TV shows, personalities, lyrics, etc.) on papers that are cut up and displayed at one end of the room. As a tag team, each respondent selects a phrase, walks it back to the opposite end of the room (if you run, you lose) and tacks it to the most appropriate concept/product/advertisement displayed the wall. For exploratory, you can have respondents write the most important attribute on a Post-it, then take it back to the stimulus. To make it an individual challenge, track time for each respondent. Prizes for everyone are necessary, with the “winner” receiving something slightly more rewarding than his peers.

Post-it exercises. Post-it exercises are a favorite because writing is Gen I’s preferred communication medium. As with adults, the exercises can also quickly organize feelings or preferences if Post-its are color-coded and subsequently probed efficiently. First, have two or more colors of Post-its available for each respondent. For example, on the green Post-it write your favorite food; on the blue Post-it write your favorite place for fast food. You reveal prepared wall charts with three labels: Healthy, Not Healthy, In Between. The discovery of data is in respondents’ rationale for placement. Large, 4 x 6 Post-its with instructions to write big work really well as they’re easy to read through the mirror.

Other exercises include creating a reality TV show, video game, downloadable app or social community. Younger participants can create a cartoon, and electronic and real-life product and image sorts are options as well.

Remember that, with all projective techniques, the data not only lives in selected or written results, but importantly in respondent’s associations and rationale during exploration. Data value is not the item or venue selected; it is what is said about it that provides the riches.

Tools, Tips and Strategies

Be cautious about starting a project with assumptions about technology or anything else. Be certain to screen for all required hardware equipment ownership and knowledge. We have learned that a majority of Gen I members in lower socio-economic groups are tech-savvy and that some stricter middle and upper-middle class parents do not include text messaging on their cell phone plans. So, no matter the socio-economic group, screen for it all.

During sessions with this age group, require cell/smartphones be placed on “silent” and set on the table or floor in the moderator’s sight. If they are not being used in group participation, have a table for storage available or padded basket with phones safely nestled inside sitting next to the moderator. It is important that respondents can see their phones, but unrealistic to believe Gen I will not access their phones within an hour’s time if left to their own devices.

Plan for boredom and “dissing.” Prepare alternate methods to ascertain the same data and be prepared to move on and return to that topic’s data dive. Similar to Gen Y, Gen I can immediately dismiss concepts or content they feel to be irrelevant, offensive or unappealing, and can get agitated when their strong feelings are not respected. They may not have the same tolerance level as other audiences with redundant, creative questioning. Feel free to push a little, but read it well or you will lose rapport. Provide a backdoor to identify something positive when the cascade is headed in a downward, negative trajectory. For example, call “stop” and say you have 34 seconds to write down as many positive things as you can, no matter how small, and the winner gets a prize!

Unless Web evaluation is your objective, limit laptops to two and create groups for exploratory exercises, Internet competitions, electronic sorts or composing. Individually, the familiar virtual world will distract them from the task at hand.

Dependent on the demographic mix, age and project objectives (and moderator preference), living room research settings work well with Gen I, provided there is limited stimulus. (I strongly recommend conference style for mix gender teens ages 15 and older.) If concepts are numerous or cumbersome in size, it’s wise to defer to a traditional conference room setting. The floor was a former client favorite for younger children. Luckily this method is no longer in vogue as we learned with Gen Y that within a short time their energy transforms them into snakes and octopus creatures, more engaged in a relationship with the carpet than with each other.

As with all respondents, written homework assignments work extremely well with Gen I in anchoring feelings in preparation for discussions. (Be sure to keep homework brief and enhance engagement by requesting a few images or videos—either self-expressed or selected references). Simple instructions along with realistic expectations will yield the richest results. Complicated homework exercises or multi-hour assignments will compete with existing schedules and likely result in lower show rates.

Although anchoring feelings is an important element, groupthink is typically not a concern with Gen I. Even though social validation is a desire, Gen I (especially females) has the ability to offer feelings without pause and extend ideas with an opportunistic attitude if the groundwork is established. A spirit of competition can turn up the volume for creativity (especially among males), where “winning” typically trumps the desire for social validation.

What We Can Learn

In a recent study conducted for the MMG , a healthcare strategy development firm, and the National Institutes of Health/National Cancer Institute’s Smokefree Teen, we evaluated content for a mobile application behavior modification tool using traditional focus groups. The product, Smokefree Teen, pioneers a mobile application as a behavior modification tool. Once the app is downloaded on a smart phone and teens opt in, the interactive program proactively pings wantto-be quitters with motivational text messages, questions to track “mood” and/or distractive exercises or games. Employing the generational insights described earlier, we discovered nuances that significantly enhanced the direction of branding, application names and content inclusions.

With all their uniqueness, it’s important to realize that members of Gen I continue to experience the range of human emotions, watch TV, are excited to receive personalized snail mail and play board games. Fundamental qualitative rules remain, albeit approaches to discovery may require distinct consideration and content. I feel strongly about the importance of face-toface interviews among this savvy, texting-obsessed generation. Although I value mobile data collection/monitoring/mining and electronic forums, the power of in-person interviews remains critical to the discovery of emotive nuances that drive behavior, even among this tech-immersed group!

We can all learn from Gen I. They demonstrate that stubbornness is old-school and respect for the world is en vogue. Gen I emerges as unique and refreshing; as we anticipate the next decades be prepared for anything but boring!


Barbara Gassaway is president and CEO of The Research Group and a trainer at the RIVA Institute. She has been working with youth since 1992 and in the healthcare industry for more than a decade. She may be reached at

To find out more, contact Barbara Gassaway and the rest of the market research specialists at Observation Baltimore by calling 410-332-0400 or click here today!

Observation Baltimore has been serving the market research industry for two decades, consistently rated “One of the World’s Best,” by Impulse Survey.

We understand market research!

Follow us on FacebookTwitterGoogle+, and LinkedIn!

Source: Marketing Research, Winter 2011, Vol. 23, No. 4, American Marketing Association

This entry was posted on Tuesday, April 3rd, 2012 at 1:54 pm. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed.