Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Beatles and Youth Marketing for Nonprofits

by Josh Jacobson
For real fans, February 9 is one of many dates in the history of Beatles that is etched into memory.  As you have no doubt heard at some point this past weekend, it was this day in 1964, fifty years ago, that the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show.  The world would never be the same.

For me, it is one of several dates to celebrate (or mourn) related to my favorite band. There’s January 30, the date of the band’s final live performance in 1969 on the rooftop of the Apple building in London.  Or June 1, the date Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released in 1967 to an unsuspecting world audience.  And of course, December 8, the day John Lennon was murdered in 1980 outside the Dakota building on the Upper East Side of Manhattan.  That most of these events took place before I was born (I was too young to remember Lennon’s death) is besides the point – as a fan, I have committed them to memory.

StrawberryFieldsOne date that has a direct impact on my life is November 29, the evening in 2001 that George Harrison died.  I know this because it was a Thursday, and I had only just arrived at LaGuardia Airport for a vacation in NYC.  The following day, my friends and I happened upon a memorial for Harrison at Strawberry Fields, a section of Central Park devoted to celebrating Lennon, the other departed Beatle.  We spent three hours there singing and clapping along with more than 200 people as musicians played the entire catalog.  Leaving the area, exhausted and emotionally drained, I declared my love of NYC to the universe and vowed to relocate there as soon as I could.  And four months later, I did.

But back in 1964, when the Beatles arrived in America, no one knew the impact the band would have on generations of music fans, much less one very enthusiastic future consultant to nonprofits. The signs were certainly there – 300 screaming fans met the band at the airport, most of them children and teenagers who had been clued in to what was happening across the Atlantic by savvy radio DJs.  The Ed Sullivan appearance served to add gasoline to a fire that had been growing steadily for almost a year.

That night, 73 million people tuned in to hear the Beatles warble through songs that were all but drowned out by screaming fans in the studio.  It was the largest television event up to that point, constituting an incredible 45% of American households with televisions.

Looking back now, it may be easy to dismiss the achievement.  The show was certainly aided by the absence of competition, in the days when network television was the only option.  Popular music was largely homogeneous in the suburbs – it would be at least another decade before sub-genres like Rap, Alternative and Heavy Metal would fracture popular music, creating niches that informed the culture and style of devotees.

No, in 1964 the world was somewhat simpler, and reaching the lion’s share of teenagers in America was a fairly straight-forward equation.

Youth Marketing: A Missed Opportunity

teenagers“So, how is your nonprofit working to engage the youth market?”

Try asking that question of most nonprofit Executive Directors and watch the blank expressions.  This is an industry that is only just recently waking up to the opportunity of the Millennial generation, and “getting younger” largely means attracting the buy-in of people under 40 years old.

“The youth market? Are you kidding? Who has time for that?”

I’ll tell you who has time for that – any company that understands the importance of the youth’s influence on the spending of family members, and the vital role branding plays during these formative years.  Billions (and billions!) of dollars are spent annually by marketers attempting to influence the youth market, particularly the teen market.   Companies like Microsoft, Coca Cola and Toyota realize that “getting to them early” is critical to building affinity that can last a lifetime.

I find even large, established nonprofit organizations have fairly half-baked teen marketing plans, too often dependent on relationships with school districts.  Because of course, the best way to build brand affinity with teenagers is through school-based activities where participation is required (he said sarcastically).  Even the most well-known participatory organizations like the Boy Scouts tend to lose market share as children age into their teen years.

Marketing to teenagers certainly isn’t easy, but is it a potential blue ocean for nonprofits?  I think so, and consider it one of the myths of fundraising worth exposing.

Myth: Marketing to Youth Yields Poor ROI for NonprofitsBookCover

While unlikely to be a major tent pole strategy for most nonprofits (particularly small shops), a youth marketing plan should be an essential component of any development effort for a number of reasons:

  • Homogenous Population – Quick, what was your high school like?  I bet mine was fairly similar, as most are throughout the country over the past several decades.  Sure, popular culture is more fragmented than it was when the Beatles arrived in 1964, but teenage populations present a fairly clear blueprint – trends are defined by a handful of individuals within a much larger group of peers who seek to emulate their choices.

If only adult populations were so easy to understand! Identifying individuals to serve on your board of directors would be a much easier proposition without political affiliations, socio-economic disparities and career choices clouding the picture.  But not unlike your organization’s young donor society, the key to successful youth marketing is encouraging those who set trends to engage with your brand, and that isn’t going to happen without some groundwork.

  • Gatekeeper Relationships – Brand marketers target the youth for a very good reason – they drive sales.  While they may not have much disposable income themselves, youth are gatekeepers to their parents who buy their children the products they desire (or demand, depending on the teenager).

The pathway for nonprofits has been forged by participatory organizations like Girl Scouts.  Every winter, without fail, I would purchase ten boxes of Girl Scout cookies from the CFO of a past organization where I worked.  I did this because I felt it would somehow help me should I ever request a grant budget at the 11th hour.  Silly, sure, but such social pressure at work drives nonprofit revenue as effectively as any United Way workplace giving campaign.

One organization in Charlotte recently worked with, Hands On Charlotte, has seen a spike in recent years of interest in volunteerism by teenagers who must fulfill a set number of hours of community service in order the graduate.  A parent called them recently looking for opportunities that could be easily squeezed into an already busy social schedule.  She was very willing to pay a fee in order to make it possible for her teenager to accrue those hours – something around which your nonprofit might consider building a revenue strategy.

  • Lifelong Affinity –The things we love as children are likely to stay with us the rest of our lives.  Coca Cola knows that, which is why they seek to win teen preference in the lunch line of high schools across the country.  I am a Beatles fan because I stumbled on my parent’s collection of scratched-up albums when I was 12 or 13, and discovered them as if they were a secret known only to me.

At a party this past weekend at the home of a friend and colleague, I had a great conversation with a gentleman who was raised in the area.  In high school, he volunteered at the Carolina Raptor Center and developed a strong affection for their birds and the organization as a whole.  Now an adult and a banker in Charlotte, he returns with friends and relatives, and because of the lifespan of some raptors, can even visit some of the birds he helped as a teenager.  When the Center engaged that teenager as a boy, it is unlikely that donor cultivation was top of mind, but perhaps it should have been.

Engaging the youth market is a bit like establishing a planned giving strategy – another activity most nonprofits put off.  Nonprofits in need of near-term revenue are unlikely to prioritize teen engagement unless it can impact this year’s bottom line.  And so they miss opportunities to foster those relationships and find themselves forever in the hamster wheel.  But for the savvy nonprofit, it can be a differentiating strategy that has a lasting impact long after the end of the current fiscal year.

Three Questions to Consider this Week:

  1. How, if at all, do you currently engage the youth market? Are there opportunities to leverage latent connectivity to encourage deeper affinity?
  2. How can youth serve as a bridge to their 30-something and 40-something parents for your nonprofit, either as charitable donors or purchasers?  How does social media factor in to that engagement?
  3. How are the children of your staff and board encouraged to engage with your nonprofit?  Are they potential gatekeepers to their peers?

Image Credits: Featured Image (Alan Levine), Harrison Memorial (NYC Gov Parks), Teens (123RF – vlue)

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