Capturing the attention of young people takes serious effort, but breaking through the cacophony of noise and the constant blur of screens is possible. It all starts by shifting perspective and developing an inclusive culture and process to engage youth in meaningful ways.

Through our work on youth behavioral change campaigns, we’ve learned that authenticity is key. Messages and materials need to have a youth voice and tap into youth culture. They need to reflect the lived experiences of young people today.

Lukewarm campaigns or adults trying to fake it won’t work, but leveraging the right partnerships can be effective.

Our push to increase youth engagement led us to try a range of innovative tactics. Most worked, and some didn’t, but all became lessons on how to best support future efforts.

A Framework for Meaningful Engagement

The positive youth development model serves as a good framework for meaningful youth engagement, especially if you’re trying to include systemically excluded and underrepresented voices in your campaign. The positive youth development approach creates a safe, welcoming, and inclusive environment where young people can feel freer to be themselves. And while you can implement the model on your own, we found that bringing in a trainer to teach and support our team to implement positive youth development best practices immediately improved our engagement rates.

Perhaps the most important takeaway of positive youth development is that we reinforce an internal culture where we view young people as inherently valuable with limitless talents and strengths. When young people feel proud and empowered, they’re more likely to stay engaged—and engagement is the key to campaign success.

Here are three ways to create it within your organization’s youth outreach:

1. Create real authenticity.

Authenticity comes from bringing stakeholders to the table. Often, our challenge is how to do that when stakeholders are far away. Our solution has been to establish an online panel for input, which comprises several dozen young people who represent different races and ethnicities, socioeconomic statuses, and lived experiences.

Throughout the development youth campaigns, we go to the panel weekly for input. Participants provide real-time feedback about their daily challenges, and they test and provide input on creative concepts during our planning and creative development project phases.

To help us tell and showcase their experiences, we also engage the panel to create original campaign content for our clients’ social channels and websites. Consistent with the positive youth development framework, youth are encouraged to produce content in whatever format they want. We receive amazing stories, poems, art, videos, and music, among others.

2. Build on what works.

To cultivate more meaningful engagement in the creation of successful behavior change campaigns, recognize that you will make mistakes. Even after decades of doing this work, we are always trying to improve our collaboration with youth.

For example, on a recent campaign, we thought that our even more inclusive and collaborative approach would be enough to sell young people on joining the youth panel, but when youth sign-ups were going slower than we expected, we had to pivot.

Our pivot involved establishing a consistent program identity for the panel (via branding and logos, among other tactics) and incorporating “what’s in it for them” messaging into all promotional materials. The messaging was more transparent about participation requirements and better highlighted the benefits of joining, which helped improve the sign-up rate.

3. Set your campaign up for success.

A lot will change this year in terms of how young people engage. Some youth migrated between in-person and virtual learning through the pandemic. This constant uncertainty could take a huge social-emotional toll on young people whose brains are still developing and who may not have the capacity to adapt; some parts of the brain that are in charge of processing stuff like this don’t fully develop until the late teens.

Marketers wanting to reach youth in an impactful and helpful way need to think tactically about the framing of campaign messages in this new reality. How does an issue align or conflict with the experience? Is now the right time to talk about this particular issue? How can you tap into what they’re going through to make your issue more relevant to them? Can you provide opportunities for youth engagement that effectively offer a positive “escape”?

As you plan your efforts, remember that the demands on their time vary, as do the time and effort individuals are willing to give to any task. It’s a good strategy to offer different participation levels to capture as many participants as possible.

One approach we use is to bring in youth advisors to help steer youth campaigns. This allows the most intrigued and engaged young people to work on the campaign as peers and strategists. The insights and perceptions these youth advisors bring to the project are impossible to quantify.

It’s a strange time for everyone, but important work — particularly regarding youth — must go on. Their participation in campaigns is vital. When you pay attention to what matters to them, chances are you’ll get what you need in return.