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5 Tips to Mobilize Teenagers to Do Something

“Mobile creates this unbelievable, simultaneous, instantaneous focus group, where you can get real-time information.”

Without a hint of a wrinkle around her bright smile, Aria Finger, 29, is nonetheless an official old person.

“At DoSomething, you turn old the moment you hit age 26,” she concedes. “It's very official. It's a very tough birthday at the DoSomething office. Tears.”

Finger is the Chief Operating Officer of, a teen-focused nonprofit that runs campaigns to get young people active in helping others.

After seven years tracking what makes teens volunteer and donate, or generally step up and do something in any way, Finger is an expert in tapping teens for good. Her tactics can inform any campaign targeting young people, from political campaigns and schools to parents and fellow teens.

Here are a few tips she shared with GOOD:

First, believe teens can actually have an impact. Take the example of recent campaign Finger managed: Teens for Jeans, which asked young people to donate an old pair of jeans for a homeless fellow teen. “We saw homelessness as one of the top five issues that teens care about,” Finger says. “They can understand it. It's right in their town. It's right in their back yard.” Over four weeks this January, collected more than 1 million pairs of jeans, almost double their expectations. With about 1.7 million homeless youth in the United States, that’s enough to give a pair to two-thirds of them. That’s serious mobilization of an age group known for apathy and selfishness.

Harness their passion, good or bad. “You don't ask them ‘what do you care about,’” she says. “You ask them what pisses them off… and it's gonna be something close to home. ‘I'm pissed off that my teachers suck,’ or ‘the school lunch is gross’ or that ‘that empty lot on the side of my street could be a ball field.’” Then you have to channel that energy into something productive: point them to tools to organize a community clean up of the lot, for example.

Use peer pressure. “There's nothing better than peer pressure,” Finger says. “An emotional connection is great, but even better… is the peer pressure." Finger uses an example from a hotel bathroom. “When you're at a hotel, and they say, ‘Save the environment. Please pick up these towels and don't leave them on the floor,’ it's good. But the most effective possible messaging is when you say, ‘70 percent of the people who've stayed in this room helped clean up by putting [towels] on a rack.’ That sort of subliminal peer pressure gets anyone, any age, teenagers or not, to do something.”

Text is better than email. Hate teens' obsession with texting all you like, but it's the hands-down winner for reaching them. “The typical email, if it's answered at all, which it's not, is answered within 48 hours… The average text message is answered within four minutes,” Finger says. “The average teenager sends over 3,000 text messages a month—I think it's 3,339—and if they're a girl, they send over 4,000 every month.” Those figures are especially shocking because most teenagers don’t have smartphones—which also means don't bother sending web links. But the open rate for text messages is just about 100 percent, so your message will get through. For email, organizations are lucky if 25 percent of their mailing list reads a message.

Listen. DoSomething spends a lot of time and mailing list resources asking teens for information, which shows the organization cares what teens think. It also opens doors. The group asked teens to rate their schools on bullying, which can start a conversation that points to ways to help strengthen their schools’ anti-bullying efforts, or simply encourage them to go see the film Bully. When DoSomething texted out a multiple-choice question about whether college was worth it, it saw 25,000 people respond within two hours. “Mobile creates this unbelievable, simultaneous, instantaneous focus group, where you can get this real-time information,” Finger says.

Be ready to respond—personally. What happens after a young person replies to a message is as important as what they say, especially for other activists trying to mobilize youth. At DoSomething, responses go to a real person. “You then have to respond to young people within four minutes,” Finger warns. For instance, after the college survey, if someone writes back and says, ‘I want information about how to get a college scholarship,’ they will expect a response within nine minutes, Finger says.

The first two answers to a text survey might be an automated decision tree, but by the third—when texters are likely to start asking personalized questions—a 21st-century SMS operator will be scanning the responses and writing back.

“We have people all the time asking, ‘are you a robot?’ … or they'll curse, and you'll write back, ‘Oh hey, you talk to your mother with that mouth?’ Finger recounts. “They'll be like 'OHMYGOD I'm so sorry! I love DoSomething! I just thought you were a robot.'”

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