NEW YORK — While the online world may be virtual, what teenagers like to do there is not so different from what they do in real life.
They use the Internet to connect socially, for personal expression, to shop, escape, play games and explore their sexuality, according to experts who follow teen trends. Specifically, they are sending instant messages, creating and commenting on each others’ blogs, hunting for bargains and downloading music.
“Over half of teens have created some of their own content online: either a blog, a Web page, it could be personal art, or morphing materials that are there to represent the self,” said Grant Macdonald, founding partner of North Castle of Stamford, Conn., an advertising and marketing communications firm focused on youth. “And they’re asking their friends to share in it, look at it, be part of it.”
Many of the sites where they can do this now offer a blend of social networking (profiles linked in a network), blogging and commenting, photo sharing and message boards. Popular sites that have some or all of these components are MySpace, Xanga, hi5, LiveJournal and FaceBook.
“They’re writing and expressing themselves and sharing their most mundane and poignant experiences,” said Samantha Skey, senior vice president of strategic marketing for Alloy Media + Marketing of New York, whose parent company also owns the teen fashion Web sites and catalogues Alloy and Delia’s. “That perpetual expression of what’s going on in their life is what has taken over the personality of the Web for teens.”
The top 15 sites most visited by teenagers in September, according to Nielsen/NetRatings, are not particularly well-known (see chart), but nearly all of them offer technology or content to enhance online activities that are popular with teens, such as instant messaging, blogging or personal Web pages. One site popular in its own right is eCrush.com, a dating game where teens can find out if the people they have a crush on also have a crush on them. You enter a crush’s first name, last name and e-mail address. If they have also entered your information, the site will let both of you know via e-mail.
Teenagers like to shop online, although they don’t buy in the great numbers that adults do. In 2004, teenagers spent $1.8 billion online and by the end of this year, will ring up $2.3 billion in online goods, according to Internet research firm JupiterResearch of New York. They don’t all have credit cards, said Skey, and, at least in the case of clothes, they also like to try before they buy and avoid shipping charges, said Macdonald.
“It’s a rare teen who would not admit to shopping online because being very active online is a large part of their identity and the idea that they find really cool unique things online is a part of their identity as well,” said Skey. They also love a bargain and, for that reason, eBay is the second most popular online shopping destination for teenagers, according to Nielsen.
“They love luxury items and big fat brands, so an old Chanel bag, which shockingly a teenager might have a use for, that’s the kind of thing they might brag about,”said Skey. “That’s the bling status sector. Luxury goods in general and difficult-to-find music [are also popular]. And some advanced editions of ‘Harry Potter’ and Hollywood scripts. Anything to be in the know.”
Teenagers are into entertainment online, and they gravitate to music and movies, said David Card, an analyst with JupiterResearch. Adults, on the other hand, are more likely to visit sports and television sites. Another important online activity for teenagers is doing research for homework. By the end of the year, 79 percent of U.S. teenagers, or 20.6 million teens, will be online, he said.
Teens like to play around with customizing clothes and other virtual aids to imagination, said Macdonald. A typical teenager will spend more than an hour on the Nike ID site, even though he or she is not buying anything, he said. “They’re redesigning their own shoes, trying different models, styles and colors, just experimenting. It’s a place for them to express themselves. It’s a game to them.”
Some brands are involving teenagers in designing or choosing products. (Eric Von Hippel, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Sloan School of Management calls this “user-driven innovation.”) For instance, Aéropostale has in the past allowed teens to vote on different elements of design for T-shirts, such as necklines, colors and sleeves, and then produced and sold the most popular models, Macdonald said.
“Teens want to participate and have input into their brands,” he said. “It strengthens the link between a brand and the consumer by allowing it to be part of their story. What a way of building loyalty. If you go to any of the big conferences on new ways of marketing, the whole issue of personalization and customization of brands and messages and where people experience them is so much on the forefront of where everyone’s going, and fashion is the perfect industry to take advantage of those things.”
Branded entertainment in games is also big, Macdonald said. So, for example, game players might dress their avatars in virtual clothes by Ralph Lauren or choose wheels for an Escalade. “Whatever the character is in a game, you get to customize it, and the brands sponsor the customization,” said Macdonald.
Soon, brands will be able to get closer to customers by sponsoring a “network” on a social networking site or group focused on a particular topic, such as fashion. It’s not available yet, but social networking sites are talking about it, Macdonald said.