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Experts in the youth research and marketing space have long posited that understanding and connecting with youth constitutes an art form all its own. Conducting research with youth often requires re-inventing your research suite to include tools that allow youth to authentically communicate their ideas and feelings – while keeping conscious of cost, timing and client needs. Each month, YouthBeat will bring you our POV on the latest (and the lingering) youth research to help you make the most of your youth research budget. 

To complement our year-round quantitative study among youth and parent, our YouthBeat research plan includes qualitative feedback from a panel of families who share their ideas with us every six weeks. We arm them with hand-held cameras and empower them to create their own documentaries on topics we provide. We’ve been using this approach for a while, and we’ve learned a few lessons along the way…

  1. Video documentaries work better for youth than for adults…While adults often cringe and wonder how they look on film, today’s youth (generally) revel in the chance for a few minutes of fame. They see being on film as more of an opportunity to express their ideas than a risk of appearing awkward, and they are far from intimidated by this user-friendly technology.
  2. Putting them in control of the interview inherently gets them talking…Although the best youth moderators listen more than they talk, it’s challenging, in a focus group setting, to provide youth with the chance to tell a story, or to expand on their ideas. The same kid, tween or teen who might provide a socially acceptable short answer in a focus group setting come to life when they’re given time. We provide our youth with an outline of questions, but we know we have a great probe when it prompts a personal story.
  3. We learn more from youth when we allow them to show, not tell. Asking youth to take their camera on the road can lead to shaky shots and sub-par film quality, but by getting a tour of their spaces, a look at their favorite things, or an introduction to the people they care about, we get a richer picture than we could in a focus group, and often, more access than we obtain in an ethnography.
  4. Video documentaries aren’t always a bargain…They require an initial investment in cameras, shipping costs and incentives that are high enough to counterbalance the value of the camera that you’re sending. While you can analyze focus groups in “real time,” video documentaries require the time (and cost of) downloading footage, reviewing and then identifying the story of your study. But they do eliminate the cost of travel and time lost to travel, which may make it a worthy alternative to visiting the diverse and sometimes far-flung places where your audiences live and play. 
  5. Like all research choices, there are trade-offs. Video documentaries can’t replace conversations…We can’t clarify, or follow-up when they say something intriguing or perplexing. With our panel, we’ve learned that the first round of research often serves as a practice run (a luxury you don’t often have when you’re conducting a custom study against a tight timeline), as we almost always have to remind respondents to be very specific in their responses and to spare us no detail! And we can’t control compliance in the same way that we can when we’re in the room with youth (it’s harder to sit in a focus group room and not talk than to send back a blank video camera and bypass your incentive…).

There’s no one-size-fits-all solution when it comes to youth research, but we think video documentaries are a method worth trying. If your topic is right, and your budget allows, try putting youth in the director’s chair.