Using peer crowd data to inform teens about health

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Let me take you back to high school. Were you preppy? Alternative? Maybe even a “brain”? It’s no secret that adolescence is prime time for determining who you are and what you want out of life. Yet as communicators who seek to engage young audiences, it can be helpful to know high school cliques are often about much more than the desire to fit in.

A peer crowd is a reputation-based subculture that shares particular norms, values, styles and behaviors. Common youth peer crowds include hip hop, preppy, alternative, hipster and mainstream. Peer crowds cut across racial and gender boundaries — a teen in one peer crowd may have more in common with individuals within the same crowd than she or he has with those of her or his same race and ethnicity.

Communicators who specialize in social marketing have learned that peer crowds play a big role in whether a teen engages in risky behavior, such as smoking. Therefore, they are definitely worth considering when promoting healthy behavioral change.

A look at how the “Fresh Empire” campaign used peer crowds to push anti-smoking ads made me think of ways we can do the same thing to enhance other public health campaigns. Below are a few key points and tips to help infuse peer crowd groups into your own campaigns.


Individuals’ thoughts, behaviors and opinions are often greatly influenced by the media and their peer crowd.

If you understand a peer crowd’s shared values and cultural norms, you’ll better understand what motivates their actions. For example, adolescents who value what’s considered “cool” are more likely to engage in underage drinking and drug use.

Your competition may already be leveraging peer crowd research.

  • Tobacco companies use peer crowd research to market to teens by using cultural categories (such as being a hipster and pushing yourself away from social norms or listening to punk rock). Tobacco industry insiders have discovered that peer crowds play a huge role in whether the teens will pick up on the habit of using tobacco products.
  • Similarly, the Truth campaign has a long history of effectively targeting peer crowds to push teens away from smoking.


Do your research!

  • Using formative research (research that occurs before a program is designed and implemented, or while a program is being conducted) to segment a population will help you to use time efficiently and effectively to develop messages that stick with the population you are trying to reach.

Test your message.

  • Test your message with individuals who identify with the peer crowd you’re trying to reach. You can test your messaging via a focus group — the group can be exposed to videos, story boards, ads and overall messages in order to assess which messages they are rejecting and which ones they are accepting.
  • The worst thing that can happen is for a well-intended message to have unintended consequences.

Using peer crowd research has proven to be an effective new tool that should be considered next time you want to push out public health messages.

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Categories: Health-Wellness