MARKET FOCUS - The Young and the Wired

A bunch of teen sites are competing for stickiest status.

The largest generation since the baby boomers, “Gen i” (a term trademarked by Snowball.com) comprises 67.7 million 15-24 year-olds who’ve grown up with the Internet. ICQ, AOL’s IM, Napster, and MP3 downloads are as fun and as familiar to this segment as Princess phones and record turntables were to an older generation.

“This isn’t specialized geekdom…this is an up-to-the-minute media universe,” said Michael Wolff, describing his 16-year-old daughter’s room for New York Magazine. “There converge multiple copper land lines, high-speed broadband connectivity, cable access, and wireless cell and PDA reception.”But that’s not entirely representative of Gen i’s Net usage. According to The Industry Standard, “School is the most popular access point, with more than 80 percent of youths 10 to 17 saying they surf the Net at school.”

What are they doing once they log on? Besides attempting to look as though they’re busy with homework assignments, teens are using the Net to communicate, play, get music, and shop (see box). In the pockets of their Tommy Hilfiger jeans, they have $302.4 billion to spend. And as of 1999, according to Forrester Research, teens were dedicating more than 10 percent of that disposable income to online purchases.

While limited access to credit cards may inhibit their Internet sprees, they’re still managing to spend at virtual stores. EAR (Emerging Adult Research, Inc.), a firm that studies this generation, reports the leading online purchases among teens are, in this order:

1. Music, CDs, tapes, records 2. Clothing 3. Toys and non-computer games 4. Downloadable music files 5. Computer games 6. Collectibles

That’s what they’re buying now. And while many may be offline during the summer months or have less access, they won’t be gone for long. And they won’t be teens forever, either. Today’s Net activity is practice for high-ticket online purchases ahead. That makes reaching them early critical. Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research, told ZDNet, “This audience develops brand loyalty at a very early age. By 20 it may be too late.”

For marketers and media planners, that calls for seeing the sites Gen i’s eyeballs are glued to. The most popular ones are networks that aggregate multiple smaller sites devoted to special interests. Whether providing games, information, online shopping, and/or community features, the sites on the following page are attracting teens in significant numbers today.