WireTap

Register Here : Online Marketing to Generation Net

In surveying the sites and services that are currently aimed at young people, the Center for Media Education found an overwhelming number of commercial sites geared only at gathering consumer data. How do they do this? By harnessing teens' innate desire to express themselves. What are the dangers? A heavy focus on consuming and an eventual "complete loss of privacy," reports CME.
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Giant mergers, corporate buy-outs and large-format advertising. It's been a chaotic year for the Internet. But that hasn't stopped teens in America from spending a lot of their time online. If anything, the number of teens with regular access (now at seventy five percent) is expected to go up, as wireless technology becomes increasingly more affordable. At the same time, recent changes in the digital landscape have affected what teens are doing when they log on. Many of these shifts are being driven by commercial forces and will likely have an impact not fully visible for years to come.

If the Internet is being reduced to a marketplace, then it is young people who will shape and be shaped by its increasingly commercially-driven architecture. Teens and young adults will come of age taking the Internet for granted, as their parents did television, as their grandparents did telephones. So it is these new "net natives" who must be vigilant in their participation online, lest they end up buying into a process meant to train and prime them for a life of passive consumption.

Involve youth superficially in the shaping of their own image, say the most savvy marketers, and you'll have them hooked. Give them a sense that choosing a cell phone color is an important part of their identity and you'll have them.


For corporations, getting teens to talk is the key to a good marketing strategy -- not about just anything, but about themselves. Involve youth superficially in the shaping of their own image, say the most savvy marketers, and you'll have them hooked. Give them a sense that choosing a cell phone color is an important part of their identity and you'll have them. Meanwhile, count on their limited access to real cultural participation. If you've seen MTV's Total Request Live, you understand.

It's a complex tactic. But according to the new study by the Center for Media Education on teen culture online it's a pervasive one. The study, released in December, was called "TeenSites.com: A Field Guide to the New Digital Landscape." Rather than focusing on the impact of the Internet of teens, the study is meant to be a map of what is available for them online.

And what a map it turned out to be. Compiling existing research on the Internet as well as on technology and adolescent development, "TeenSites" highlights a number of noteworthy trends and statistics, focusing on the commercial aspects of the Web and their alternatives. It goes into the economics behind some of the most popular teen web sites. It discusses the way many have shifted their business models in the last year, as well as the ripple effects these shifts are expected to have on teen culture. The study also looks at the forces shaping young people's social and political engagement online, and makes a number of recommendations for public policy.

Perhaps most noteworthy is the way Teensites brings to light market research tactics that exploit young people's innate desire to express themselves.

Because teens have the energy and potential to be such active members of our culture, its disappointing to see them get channeled into these subtle yet manipulative research tools. Once she is hooked on online participation, even the most savvy teen is vulnerable to the system of gathering and quantifying personal information.

The fear here is that the Internet may cause teens to believe in their power to effect product development before they'll believe in their power to effect the world. Even worse, they may begin to equate the two.

"Learn About Free Stuff, Offers and Contests"

Surprisingly, most teens are not going online to buy anything. In fact, the study reports that only 2% of teens are logging on with that intention. But most companies are focusing on teens because they want to appear, at the very least, to value their opinions. Also, teens have sway over their parents' spending. The authors of "TeenSites" put it best when they say that the web enables marketers to create "a constant feedback loop that monitors not only the interests and tastes of teens, but also some of their most intimate communications and patterns."

With message boards, articles, chat rooms, contests, audio downloads and free email accounts, commercial sites like MTV.Com, Bolt, Alloy, and the AOL teen channels involve youth as both audience members and participants. Although there is often a variety of ways that teens can be involved on such sites, "Teensites" found that the activities involving communication, such as message boards, chat rooms and personal email accounts are the most popular.

This is the good news. We all know that self expression is a vital part of developing as an adult. Most teens' natural aptitude for interactivity is what often sets them apart from older generations. But what happens when this expression is, as CME points out, all "rooted within the business imperatives of the new digital economy?"

When teens engage in many of the interactive functions of these sites, they are doing more than entertaining and educating themselves. When a user registers, "joins" or becomes a member on a new site, for example, he or she usually fills out an extensive online form. As with adult sites, these ask for the basics: name, email address, mailing address, etc. But they also tend to serve the purpose of gathering much more "optional" information. Aside from age, gender and zip code, they ask questions like "Do you own a cell phone, pager or both?" and usually ask for some information on teens' buying practices.

The owners of these sites are turning around and selling this information to Ford, Sony and Coca-Cola, to name a few.


On top of the data that the registration process is designed to gather, many sites offer whole sections encouraging teens to "voice their choices." These usually take the form of quizzes and polls that are designed to be fun to take, and to make readers feel empowered and in charge.

What many teens are not aware of is that the owners of these sites are turning around and selling this information to Ford, Sony and Coca-Cola, to name a few. Market research has proven to be a far more successful way for teen websites to stay afloat than advertising or ecommerce.

"TeenSites" describes the Web as both "an extension of market research practice" and "a potent surveillance tool that enables constant and unobtrusive monitoring of teen subcultures." Some companies have become so adept at interweaving advertising and data collecting into their interfaces that teens are willingly handing over their privacy.

On the surface, most of what you'll find on these sites is typical teen stuff, dating, pop-culture, fashion, etc. (The themes of content on the sites mentioned in "Teensites" broke down like this: Music 67.9%, film 54%, relationships 51%, advice 49% and fashion 43%.). But most of this is flawlessly blended with advertising and product promotion.

In one frightening example, Bolt.com and Ford Motor Company formed a "co-branded" portion of the Bolt site where young people could talk about their "automotive preferences" within a fun, colorful interface. In this way, the site catered to young users' desires to voice their opinions.

Most sites don't exactly disguise their corporate partnerships or their attempts to build brand-loyalty. All they tend to need is a little irony. Many teens are conscious of media saturation and critical of corporate motives. But that doesn't stop them from wanting to belong. And remember: the options are slim. How many people do you know who are critical of the Gap, but still shop there for lack of options? The smartest marketing tactics take these contradictions for granted, and pretend to be offering something truly rewarding in return for brand loyalty.

Take PlayStation, for example. They enlist "members" to whom they can send early announcements about product releases and offer a "wish list" service (that's an email that goes out to friends and families around the holidays alerting them of their PlayStation-addicted son's/brother's/friend's deepest desires.) Cover Girl offers free newsletters with personal make-up tips and a monthly astrological forecast called "BeautyCast" to their "subscribers."

puterWhen one participates in these marketing gimmicks, they are not just buying a membership to the most elite, make-up- adorned, PlayStation-owning "subcultures." They are, in fact, furthering the reasons these groups exist in the first place: to sell more product.

A Silver Lining?

Surveys and questionnaires serve two functions. By voicing their opinions youth are providing the marketing industry with the data they need to funnel them into narrowly- designated consumers groups. But interactive components are also "a testing ground for identity formation," meaning they help teens learn about themselves and get a sense of who they are.

Most teens go online to communicate. Teenage Research Unlimited (TRU) reports that 70% of teens on the web are using it for email, while 50% use it for instant messaging, and 40% are talking in public chat rooms. It's possible that the freedom and autonomy achieved through this increased communication with their peers balances some of what they are absorbing on corporate sites.

It is exciting to hear that so many teens are participating and interacting with each other and with what they're finding online. Just by the nature of these tools, most youth are making choices and being asked to interact far more online than they do in front of a television. In an ideal world this interaction would occur outside of the commercial context, but even the fluffy sites can stimulate some growth.

For example, you may be seen as an oddball if you post a message about anti-sweatshop activism on Bolt.com, but no one will stop you from doing it, and a few people (out of their millions of users) might actually want to discuss it with you. Nearly a quarter (24%) of all teens who are online have websites of their own. Many of those are probably hosted on large, commercial sites, but it's probably safe to say they're not all talking about their taste in Ford Trucks, PlayStations and CoverGirl lipstick.

And while email is now being used as a direct marketing tool (rumor has it that your Instant Message boxes will soon be filled with ads, as well), it's clear that some of that communication has to be affecting the way teens live and think. If nothing else, it's getting kids writing.

As part of their exploration of the alternatives to commercial sites, CME looked at The Diary Project, a nonprofit web-based project that offers teens a place "to write about their day-to-day experiences of growing up." Here, as on many other sites like it, teens do tend to write openly about some of the more intimate and challenging aspects of their lives; thoughts on race and gender issues, as well as their families, their romantic and sexual relationships. "TeenSites" says that while the content of such sites is not necessarily unique simply because its online, the way that the Internet is effecting communication is profound.

"Explorers," "Visibles," and "Isolators"
Market researchers have devised entire lexicons of categories for describing teens. A recent report by the Cheskin Research and Cyberteens.com ("Teens and the Future of the Web"), for example, identified and profiled five "distinct teen segments based on attitude, behavior and conformity": Explorers, Visibles, Status Quos, Isolators, and Non-teens. "Explorers," according to the report, are a very small but highly influential group of creative and independent individuals who are "passionate and committed to the interests and issues around which they build their identities." The labels that other teens use most frequently to describe such teens, noted the study, include "Ravers," "Goths," "Weirdos" and "Freaks." As key trendsetters among the younger population, this segment is particularly important for marketers to monitor, especially since they change "rapidly and repeatedly." "Visibles" are the most popular and well-known group of teens, although not always liked by their peers. Representing 20 percent of the teen demographic, they are not as well represented on the Internet, according to the report, and thus "attention must be focused on attracting more of this segment." "Non-teens," on the other hand, are the most atypical of teenagers, "whether due to lack of social skills, an indifference to teen culture and style, or an intense interest in academics." Non-teens are often referred to as "Nerds," "Dorks," and "Geeks."

--From the Commercial Culture Online chapter of "TeenSites.com"
"Because communication online involves an openness with an implied (if qualified) guarantee of anonymity," says the study "teens are afforded unprecedented freedom of expression on issues that were once considered taboo." This could drastically effect the very definition of the word "private" in the future.

Ironically, it is the same eagerness to participate and disclose information online that can make youth both ideal participants in focus groups and engaged participants in the world around them. The Internet provides some of its young users with opportunities for critical thinking, networking and exposure to activist tools that may, in the long run, make those who are motivated to look beyond its commercial aspects more effective citizens. Whether the majority of youth will actually have access to the kinds of dialogues, as well as the tools, resources, and networks that allow them to do this is yet to be seen.

The CME study (and the mere existence of sites like WireTap) points to the fact that there are a number of projects out there interested in engaging youth without the commercial factor. Most are linked to non-profit organizations, many have ties to communities that have existed long before the Internet and very few are truly financially stable. In fact, a number of sites were started with the intention of providing youth with a space to exchange ideas and engage in serious issues, but have since shifted to more traditional business models.

If there is no proof that empowering, non-commercial sites for youth have an impact, it is hard for them to justify their existence. The CME study suggests that another level of research is necessary. Unfortunately the majority of the research that has been done exists within the private (mostly marketing-driven) domain. Marketing sites measure success by looking at the bottom line. It is a lot harder to prove that you're having an impact when you are not measuring it in dollars.

Conclusion

The Internet has the ability to help the next generation to think critically. It can help them see themselves as decision-makers, and take action in their own communities. But the Internet is only as strong as the forces behind it. Teensites suggests that consumerism, as this landscape's primary shaping force, has the potential to stifle important aspects of teen culture.

When the Center for Media Education released TeenSites last December, they intended to lay the groundwork for research about many facets of online teen culture. The study did that and more. It pointed out that, while some research is taking place, most of it is being done from the inside. "TeenSites" should also serve as a reminder that the Internet is a powerful tool, but a tool nonetheless.

As it stands now, youth are being led to pour a great deal of energy and self-expression that could go elsewhere into the shaping of commercial culture. This may not be a new phenomenon, but the Internet is taking it to a new level. Most of us are adjusting to the kinds of interaction that occur online, but we can still step back and identify the Net's pull and intensity.

CME has pointed out how essential it is that that we study what teens have access to on the Internet now. It's also crucial that we do this soon, while we still remember a time before the Internet.

T. Eve Greenaway is the WireTap editor. Send your comments to [email protected] and she might just write you back. New Link: Check out the Online Activists: Youth Websites Serving the Public Good listing from What Kids Can Do.
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