Posted January 25, 2011 8:23 pm by with 7 comments

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If I say “Pudding!” to my closest friends, they’ll crack up laughing because they know exactly what I mean. It’s an in-joke, a kind of secret language that defines us as a group. Widen that circle to my fandom friends and we truly have a language all our own. A language we use so commonly that we often forget that outsiders can’t figure out what we’re talking about. Then again, maybe that’s part of why we developed the language in the first place, so we can talk in front of the whole world but only those clued-in will know the truth.

Teens have a language all their own and they’re taking it to new heights through social media. According to an article in MediaShift, teens have developed their own form of “social coding” that allows them to be public while still keeping their conversations private. From the type of profile picture you use, to which brands you follow, there’s a hidden message in everything teens say or do.

Peter Swanson, a college-aged intern at ad agency, Engauge, said:

“I know it sounds superficial, but if I see a girl likes three or four brands, I pretty much know who she is — or at least, I can tell if we’re going to click, if we’ve got a chance. If she likes J. Crew, right? Or, like, Old Navy? That says a lot.”

What that means for marketers, is that unlike moms whose loyalty can be bought with a discount code, teens are pickier about who they do and do not follow. It also means that to engage this audience you have to speak their language and that might mean hiring someone from that age-group to translate for you.

The concept of coded social media messages, also plays out in the Latino community, where Twitter hashtags are more than just a form of organization.

Giovanni Rodriguez of ClickZ wrote an interesting article called “Latinos in #Twitterlandia” which looks at hashtags as the modern equivalent of a secret handshake.

For many Twitter diehards today, the hashtag denotes not a thing but a group of people with similar interests. Many Latinos have openly embraced the hashtag for this kind of socialization. . . And while the use of the hashtag at one time may have been confined to a small class of insiders . . . it’s now used to openly invite all comers. You, too, can join a Latino “gang” on Twitter. And you don’t have to be Latino.

So the solution to marketing to either of these groups would appear to be learning their secret language. But is it? Sure it’s good to know as much about your audience as you can, but there’s nothing more embarrassing than wannabe trying to fit in.

The real trick is finding a middle ground, a way to get your message across to a particular group without pretending to be something you’re not. As noted above, you don’t have to Latino to join the conversation, but you do have to be respectful of their beliefs and what they stand for, or you and your product will be the subject of their next “in” joke.

  • Secret language?

    Hashtags are an organizational tool around topics and interests. Latinos use them no dofferently.

    Just like #baseball or #nyc wouldn’t be a secret language nor would #hispz or #comida.

    Now if someone is not familiar with the Hispanic language then I can see where the element of ‘mysteriousness’ arises.

  • Latinos and Teens: Cracking the Social Media Codes? In my opinions,It should not be so fast,Too early

  • I doubt the teens will love marketers who ‘crack their code.’ Using hip language to pretend you’re part of a sub-culture never works well.

  • Michael

    “Pudding”? I remember that from “Hello Dolly.” Is that where and your friends you got it?

    • Joshua Corbelli

      I agree that teens do follow a much more complex set of norms and behaviors than their predecessors, but I just can’t wrap my head around why you chose to single out the Latino community and hashtagging. It seems like you noticed a trend and focused all social networking to a very specific demographic, which doesn’t lend much use. Or it seems a bit short sided in that the message comes across that you are unfamiliar with hashtagging use in other demographics, be it culture, nationality, age, gender, etc. It sounds like this was an idea that needs more information to make it come to fruition.

  • Cynthia

    Josh and Louis,

    I didn’t single out Hispanics, the author of the original article did. If you look at that article you’ll see they make a distinction between the way certain Latino related hashtags are used versus other tags. They did a study and saw that your normal hashtag has a short shelf life, it rises, peaks and usually falls away after that. Look at the ones used for natural disasters or special events.

    What they found unusual was that the Latino tags had a longer shelf life, they were used continuously to group conversations related to a particular group of people. Now maybe there are similar tags for teachers, people of Polish ancestry or middle children – I don’t know, but could be.

    The point of the article was not to single out one group, but to point out how groups have a language all their own and it’s something marketers should be aware of.

  • Hi Cynthia — thanks for linking to my article in ClickZ but I think you misunderstood what I was saying about the Latino hashtags. In no was I saying the groups have a “secret language.” In fact, it’s the opposite — these are open conversations that anyone can join, and that’s one reason some of them appear to be working so well.