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What teens want

 

David Ho

Sydney Morning Herald

July 7, 2008
 

For the under-20s crowd, cool is all about the technology, writes David Ho.

What do teens want? Tech, tech and more tech.

From the latest mobile phone and game system to a new Apple i-something and a virtual apartment, technology increasingly defines the lifestyles of teenagers, say marketing experts and company executives.

That was the main theme of the "What Teens Want" conference in Manhattan last month, as advertisers sought insights into a tech-savvy and globally connected generation that is remaking the image of the typical consumer.

Tina Wells, chief executive of Buzz Marketing Group, says: "Technology is starting to define what's cool in a way that fashion used to define what's cool." For teens, "as long as it's technology, it's what's hot".

Technology also has turned advertising upside-down, with companies scrambling to adapt to internet video, digital video recorders, mobile media devices and online social networking. It's a fast-moving, tech-heavy world that teens take for granted.

Jeremy Wright, global director of mobile brand strategy with the European handset maker Nokia, says: "They're just so receptive to new technology in ways that we find hard to understand. They're the early explorers in mobile [technology]."

Jordan Berman, executive director of media innovation for AT&T Mobility, the wireless division of the San Antonio, Texas communications giant, says: "Teens have adopted text messaging as a second language." He jokes that thumb-typing teens now use their thumbs to push doorbells.

The teen marketplace breaks into "tribes", Wells says. Two of them are preppies, the popular kids, and techies, who "five or six years ago were called nerds and geeks".

"As times have changed, [the techies] are really cool kids," she says. "They're the ones that know about an iPhone 18 months [before it arrives] and they teach a preppie how to use it."

Wells, who started her firm in 1996 when she was 16, studies trends with a global network of about 9000 young people dubbed "BuzzSpotters".

Quoting an unfinished online survey, which so far includes about 680 US participants, she says 65 per cent of American teenagers plan to buy one or two tech items this northern summer before heading back to school.

More than half say they will buy tech items when they can afford them, Wells says, and only one in 10 is happy with the tech gadgets he or she has.

Of the teens Wells polled online, 93 per cent say they prefer the internet to television.

New York high school senior Jonathan Molyneaux agrees. "You can watch TV shows on the internet, so what's the point?" he says. He says he's cut virtually all conventional TV viewing and has email forwarded to his mobile phone, which he dubs "my life".

Wells's research also found 57 per cent of teens prefer Facebook over MySpace, 71 per cent choose text messages over instant messaging and 65 per cent would rather use a Mac computer instead of a PC. That's a sign of brand strength, since far fewer teens own a Mac, Wells says.

Counter to digital trends, 69 per cent of teens say they prefer magazines to blogs, she says. Magazines remain especially important to teenage girls, who see them as a social, hands-on experience, Wells says.

At the other extreme, teens are increasingly flocking to online destinations such as Habbo, a virtual community for teens that reports 9.5 million unique worldwide visitors each month, 2.4 million from the United States.

Owned by Sulake Corp in Finland, Habbo is free to use but makes money through advertising and when users buy in-world items such as furniture or clothing. Teens use virtual avatars to chat, explore or play games.

Teemu Huuhtanen, Sulake's vice-president for marketing and business development, says the site provides great insights into trends, since "teens might want different things every day".

Teenagers expect global interaction as technology such as instant messaging lets them connect with their peers around the world, Wells says. Teenagers also accept there is a merging global youth culture, where hot trends and entertainment can emerge from anywhere.

With this in mind, she says, media coverage of the presidential campaign has puzzled many teens.

"They don't understand why race is such a big deal," she says. "Their universe is totally different."

Wells says another force in youth culture is the idea that anyone can easily become famous thanks to video-sharing sites like YouTube, blogs and social networking.

An example is the teen band Push Play from Long Island, whose four male members are recent or imminent high-school graduates. They told their story at the marketing conference on Wednesday.

Without a music label, the band has found success connecting with fans through text messages and a popular MySpace page. Now, with merchandise and a popular album on Apple's iTunes site, they've sold out 2000-seat New York venues and plan to tour.

But, showing the gap between marketers and the teenage consumers they covet, 18-year-old Push Play musician Steve Scarola made many older audience members groan after being asked to name his musical influences. "I'm into old-time rock and roll," he said. "I saw Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden last night. It was incredible."

TEENS ON TECH

WHAT'S HOTTER?

* 93 per cent say internet rather than TV.

* 71 per cent say texting rather than instant messaging.

* 69 per cent say magazines rather than blogs.

* 65 per cent say Mac rather than the PC.

* 57 per cent say Facebook rather than MySpace.

 

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