Our biological age tells a lot about what we are but not that much about what we strive for. Reaching out to genres and subcultures is key to reaching more (young) people.
A couple of years ago we did a report for think tank Demos Helsinki on the power of peer groups. Our focus in the study was to look at ways groups can help drive a change towards sustainable lifestyles. We discovered that several – probably even the majority of – companies have changed their marketing from a age- or gender-oriented approach to a lifestyle-oriented approach. The savviest ones have managed to build partnerships with peer groups, which helps the companies to test, develop and market their products and services.
The reasoning behind the change away from age cohorts is that our age actually tells very little about what we want to do and to be. If you want to answer to people’s aspirations, you need to reach out to subcultures and find the right spokespeople for your work. In the best possible scenario, a partnership with a user group generated true shared value, i.e. value for the company, the consumers and the society.
Government: From Providers To Partners
Change the word ‘company’ into ‘government agency’. Unfortunately government is still very much stuck on the demographic groupings you can easily extract from public statistics. To some extent this is very understandable as most government agencies (and most spending) is used according to age cohorts. Just look at elderly care, education, early education or parks.
By and large, government agencies can be divided into five groups: regulatory bodies, planning bodies, basic service providers, maintenance bodies and what I would call civic bodies. With the last group I refer to fields like youth, libraries, civic education, culture, democratic participation and sports – the ones providing opportunities for people. They are the ones who could easily adopt a more lifestyle/genre approach. Targeting everyone is targeting no one. Often when we do not dare to rule out some groups in the communication, the compromises turn the message into blurry and unfocused mess.
The civic services – which are essential in shaping the look and feel of the city – urgently need a good partnership and dialogue with the residents in order to make their services easy to use and correctly targeted. For them it is also a lot more easier to adopt the lifestyle approach. As they would get going with this approach, their experiences and most of all results could build a concinving set of arguments that the collaborative model and lifestyle approached could create real efficiency in elderly care, regulation, urban planning or family support.
Most of us feel somewhat limited when we are addressed as youth, women, men. Our gut response is: that is not me. I am more than that. That’s why a genre approach works. Communication is successful when we react to it – mostly unconsciously – by thinking: that’s the better me. Joining that is the true me. They really want me, as the full me.
Reaching Young People
The Youth Department of Helsinki is revising its communications and digital strategy. One of the key findings by now is that young people do not find our content. The people who use our services rate them very highly. Same actually goes for other city services like the libraries. We have great stuff and numerous opportunities – often the things people have indicated they want in surveys and other studies – but people do not find them. This goes for much of government. Or how many people knew that just the City of Helsinki has a 24-hour helpline on health, that all museums are free for under 18-year-olds, that you can borrow tools from the library, that there is practically free-of-charge marriage counseling available or that the city museum has a service for ordering Helsinki images in any shape of form you desire? I am convinced that there are dozens of families who for instance have no idea about the free summer lunches in city playgrounds or about the affordable, good quality summer camps for children.
In our case there’s an obvious reason to the communication gap: young people do not google using the word ‘young’. Being young is not an identity. Actually most young people actively take distance to the idea of youth. That does not mean that they would not be interested in doing a recording with their band, going camping with friends, having trusted adults to talk to or testing their wings in theatre.
We need to be able to get the conversation going by reaching out to genres, subcultures and group identities and tapping more into desires and interests. We have great results of this already for instance with music, skateboarding and street art. Finding spokespeople to carry out the message is both good youth work and efficient marketing. This demands a radical change from the “we as government provide” approach to one that has a clear call for action: sign up here. It requires a lot more participatory approach in rolling out the message. It means that we have to have the means to test the credibility and comprehension of our messages.
My ambition is that we would be able to demonstrate our expertise on youth culture by drawing regularly a genre map of youth. This requires the kind of footwork our staff has been doing this year by interviewing over 1000 young people about their free time and future aspirations.
And as we work on taxpayers’ money and mandate, all the insight we gain should be free and accessible for anyone to use. I am convinced that the genre approach would enable cities to form stronger partnerships with young activist groups, NGOs and corporations. It would help us to reach the state that is always called for in planning seminars: lively neighbourhoods with their own character with numerous happenings. This is actually exactly what the City Council has indicated they want us to do. The genre map could look something like the sketch below.
First Look At Guyland, Twees and Gaming
During my summer holiday I looked into three interesting subcultures, which dominate the choice landscape of especially young men: guyland, twee and gaming. Guyland and gaming are extremely dominant in this time, twee is a longlasting popular culture movement with a stronger role in introducing new phenomena. They all shape young people’s ideas about their future and they all have massive commercial potential. All of these need a lot more investigation but I have summed some of my findings in the illustration below.
For us as government it is essential to understand these and many other genres. The descriptions above are just the first scratch.
Just these three have clear implications for youth work. Many of them we have already started. Here are some:
Guyland: street soccer, more sports, FIFA tournaments, mentoring programmes for boys, gender specific work, sexual education together with schools, father-son/daughter activities
Gaming: gaming rooms, space and equipment for LANs, education of professionals on game culture, game development groups, boys’ groups
Twee: band practice rooms, band competitions, recording time, theatre, arts, media
Needed: Collaborative Mapping
During my holiday I had an interesting meeting with colleagues from New York’s Department of Youth & Community Development (DYCD). Even when New York City is ten times bigger than Helsinki, I felt we were dealing with similar issues: how to balance serving the needs of all young people and the needs of the young people in greatest need? New York City had done a big shift of resources to areas in greatest need.
It was interesting to hear that New York City has been mapping local youth cultures and issues together with partners. They have regularly carried out market research on young people’s need and they have extensive work combining geomapping (map-based analysis of data) combined with focus group interviews. DYCD did most of this by commissioning experts to do this.
We have started this kind of practice with our digital strategy and in the performance reviews of Helsinki’s biggest NGOs. I also feel that collaboration with the Finnish Youth Research Society, University of Helsinki, Aalto University, HUMAK, Design Driven City Foundation (where we have actually started this already by looking at homeless youth) combined with the efforts of our own staff would help us reach a situation where we would be up-to-date with the changes and trends in youth culture.
In order to make this work in a way that meets the values of our organisation, we need to build in a strong role for young people themselves. At its best youth communities would see the Youth Department as one that they want to understand their needs and issues. As mentioned, we are pretty far in this with street art and skateboarding. But with many youth cultures we have a long way to go. Summer jobs, internships, project-based job opportunities are great tools for getting the conversation going.