Back in 1995, I began my youth-media career at Teen Voices magazine, passionate about empowering girls to write and publish. I volunteered at the Boston-based nonprofit while working as an editorial assistant at New Age Journal (now Body + Soul). Instead of fact-checking articles about psychic healing, I wanted to be working with teens full-time. So I told Alison Amoroso, the founder of Teen Voices, that I would leave my job and raise enough money to pay myself the same salary (then $18K) to come on board.
I was 24 years old and had no clue what the term “development officer” meant. High donors, special events, and direct-mail solicitations were all new to me. But I was driven. I would do whatever it took to get paid for working at Teen Voices.
And then I learned that fundraising for youth media is incredibly tough.
After three years of sending out countless solicitations, pulling all-nighters on grant applications, planning art auctions, attending high donor “teas,” and writing lengthy grantee reports for foundations that each gave us a whopping $3,000, I was burned out. I had raised enough money to grow the staff but not enough to live on without help from a credit card. More important, I could not raise enough to take a break from fundraising. I learned that at a small, grassroots nonprofit, everyone is a development officer, and it often takes away from the important work you’re trying to do.
Fast forward 10 years. I now work at Al Gore’s Current TV, a for-profit company that empowers young people to create TV they want to watch. I also publish Ypulse, a blog where I write daily commentary about Generation Y for media and marketing professionals. Working in both commercial and noncommercial media, I’ve seen how the two can benefit each other.
Youth media can offer commercial media what it’s always looking for: authentic content and access to real youth culture. Commercial media, in turn, can help distribute youth media and potentially provide it with the kind of funding that doesn’t require you to write a 10-page grant proposal.
But until recently, I hadn’t come across any marketers embracing youth media in this way.
Then, searching for interesting links to post on Ypulse, I discovered my idea was being realized in Europe: Levi’s Antidote, a new marketing initiative in Europe, is using youth-made media to reach young consumers. Their model, while not yet perfect, signifies an important step towards developing mutually beneficial relationships between brands and youth media.
Here’s how Antidote works. Lateral, a London-based digital marketing agency that Levi’s hired, finds groups with teen-produced articles, photos, and other forms of media that Levi’s can post on their website or print in a zine distributed throughout the company’s European stores. If Lateral picks up a story from Teen Voices on girl grafitti artists, for instance, that story could be read by any teen shopping at Levi’s.
A youth media organization can also receive small amounts of money from Lateral if they host live events that Levi’s wants to be associated with. (For instance, Levi’s Antidote funded an exhibition of young artists in Liverpool.)
Antidote’s press release explains that Levi’s wants to provide “young people with the tools to pursue their passion and share it with others.” Because the media and events backed by Antidote are the brainchildren of young people, the press release continues, the marketing campaign is “naturally led by what matters to young people and how they choose to express it, and as such almost a pioneering model: A major brand that voluntarily gives the lead to its consumers!”
Of course, Antidote is not only about youth empowerment. Levi’s hopes that when young consumers know the brand supports their interests, they will view Levi’s positively. It’s a win-win for both Levi’s and the youth media projects involved: Levi’s gets a positive image; the youth media groups get their media distributed by Levi’s and can receive funding for events.
In the United States, the brand that has come closest to Levi’s approach in Europe is Toyota’s Scion. Hoping to identify itself with young urban trendsetters, Scion has a record label that promotes underground artists and runs regular promotions to identify up-and-coming DJs and producers. It also publishes a monthly magazine that, according to a recent Pacific News Service article, “features some of the hottest underground hip-hop heads from the Bay Area to London.”
As is, neither Scion nor Antidote is the answer to youth media fundraising; we all know that sponsoring a few events and distributing youth media isn’t the same as funding an operating budget. And of course, a lot of idealists are leery of working with corporations for fear of selling out, being censored, or being used to market products without receiving just compensation. (Helene Venge, digital marketing manager at Levi’s Europe, openly acknowledged there are parameters around the kinds of content Antidote will and will not distribute: alternative music or street art is cool, while overt drug use or nationalism is not.)
Though flawed, these models are still worth watching. If these early ventures between brands and youth media prove successful, a new funding model could be born, one that could bring dollars to both corporations and nonprofits.
If Levi’s had offered to distribute Teen Voices content in Antidote’s print zine in its stores, would we have done it? You bet.
Now if they would only consider funding operating expenses in exchange for the content with no strings attached…
Anastasia Goodstein is the publisher of Ypulse.com, which provides a space where people working in commercial teen media and nonprofit youth media can come together. She is also the manager of viewer content at Current TV.