Many of our clients are keen to engage younger audiences but struggle to do so. Over the years we have learned a good deal about what works best to get the most from research and engagement activities with younger audiences.
There are many elements to this but we thought we’d share just a few of our top tips!
1. Be cautious of mixing
It’s easy to forget how we all felt when we were at school. The people in the year above us seemed so much older and more sophisticated, even intimidating. From an adult perspective the difference between a 12 year old and a 14 year old seems minimal, but experience tells us that if you mix group discussions by school year group, the younger ones tend to defer to the older participants, or even worse they clam up entirely.
Similarly, it’s easy to forget how we felt about chatting in mixed gender groups. Mixing the genders, especially amongst younger children, can work against a good flow of conversation – boys and girls tend to self-segregate in terms of their friendships and they therefore feel less comfortable discussing issues in mixed groups. Obviously, these gender sensitivities can be exacerbated depending on the subject you want to discuss.
2. Get creative
Creative exercises – with adults as well as children – can often uncover a whole range of thoughts and feelings on a topic that might not be expressed if you simply ask direct questions. Adults can be quite reticent to take part in creative exercises – children and young people are much more accepting of these kinds of activities…and this can be used to the researcher’s advantage!
A few years ago we undertook an engagement exercise for a London Borough looking at the long term aspirations for the area to feed into the Borough Plan. With groups of young people we gave them loads of materials and asked them to work in small groups creating a collage or picture of their future vision for the Borough. This generated fantastically detailed and revealing insights on young people’s priorities for the borough they live in. When they explained the elements of their pictures and collages they highlighted the things that would be most important to them for the future – in the example shown here the participants explained the importance of free flowing transport, religious tolerance, green spaces, decent housing and recreational opportunities.
3. Go to where they are
It may seem obvious but don’t expect young people to go out of their way to engage with you. To recruit young people you need to think about where they are; the organisations they are already linked into and the spaces where they already engage. For our university clients we often need to talk to potential future students. We recruit through their schools and undertake research in a classroom at the end of the school day. This is an environment that the young people know and they are comfortable in; they have to make no extra effort to go somewhere they wouldn’t usually go and they have been recruited via a trusted intermediary. Similarly, we have previously recruited young people via youth clubs and youth workers. Young people are also more easily recruited online – it’s the exact same principle – go to where they are.
4. Think peer to peer
However much we believe we are ‘down with the kids’ there are huge benefits in involving young people directly in the research process – each generation tends to speak a slightly different language. A full peer research project is a process where community members are supported to undertake research interviews with their peers. It shifts the control and ownership of the research process away from research professionals and towards the research audience.
This kind of approach is particularly helpful when reaching out to vulnerable and disenfranchised audiences who may distrust a professional researcher and open up more to someone who shares their experience and perspective.
We have previously applied this, for example, when working with young care leavers. However, even in a session where a researcher is moderating, it is helpful to get young people interviewing each other and feeding back in pairs – techniques like this can really help young participants to express themselves more freely.
5. Use (mobile compatible) online methods
It may seem completely obvious but young people are much more comfortable and skilled at online discussion than older participants tend to be. It is always worth thinking about whether an online survey, bulletin board or online focus group will work, rather than always having to get face to face. If you are going to use online methods, though, you still need to be creative and make it fun. Vary the types of questions you ask….a long online questionnaire with endless tick boxes and rating scales will be tedious for anyone. Remember online attention spans (at any age) can be short.
If you are going to use online surveys, for a young audience you need to be certain they are mobile compatible as new research has revealed that smartphone use has overtaken laptop use for the first time among UK 10-15 year-olds. It’s also worth thinking about making online activities more two-way. Many online dialogue tools allow participants to upload their own content – images and videos etc. Young people are very comfortable producers of digital content, as well as consumers of it, and they are likely to enjoy activities that go further than simply responding to your questions.