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Online to laugh, to chat, but not to buy

By YILU ZHAO

© St. Petersburg Times, published June 12, 2000


 Christina Marsalisi, a seventh-grader with a broad smile, spends 30 hours a week online.

She checks MaMaMedia.com to get a good laugh; goes to AskJeeves.com for homework help; and hangs around in America Online teen channels to chat with buddies from school.

That makes her a prime target for Web sites chasing the elusive Generation Y, 13- to 23-year-olds growing up with the Internet and with money to spend. But she isn't taking the bait.

"We never buy anything online," said Marsalisi, a student at Bay Point Middle School in St. Petersburg. "Pop-up windows and banners are so annoying."

Her ideal Web site certainly wouldn't include any of "that stuff."

Even if Marsalisi and her classmates aren't moved, many dot-coms hope other teens will be, and that advertisers will follow them to the sites.

The potential market is big. High schoolers are expected to spend $4.5-billion this year purchasing products and services online, according to Forrester Research, a Cambridge, Mass., research firm.

But a study released in May by Gartner Group, a research firm in Stamford, Conn., showed a different side to teens as online consumers.

"They are as careful as the adults when purchasing online," said Ann Marshman, vice president of e-business Intelligence Services at Gartner. "On the other hand, they are fussier buyers. Our studies show that they are much more likely to return a product than the adults because of their income constraints. Don't assume Generation Y consumers are somehow different when they go online."

Keeping kids safe online
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Parents have other choices beyond Alfy.com, Your Own World and Paxway's Internet access service for their children. Some sites and services have greater safeguards, and parents should check out any service thoroughly to make sure it meets their family's needs. Here are a few.

So far, Web offerings aimed at teens focus on chat rooms, horoscopes, advice and virtual encounters with celebrity. Still, some wonder whether that's what the kids want.

"At first, we thought we'd have people write up things and tell them what's cool. But soon, we found that didn't work," said Jane Mount, executive vice president of Bolt.com, one of the sites aimed at teens. "We soon realized when you are a teen, you hate it most when people try to shovel things down your throat.'

Bolt.com morphed into a youth community site whose content is mainly produced by its members: chat rooms on anything from religion and spirituality to sex and dating, boards to post questions and poetry, tag books -- a mix of journal and guestbook -- to showcase their artwork and receive criticism, and a shop selling T-shirts designed by members.

As "by teens, for teens" becomes the mantra at most teen sites, spelling and grammar no longer matter. Whatever is hip and convenient rules: "ur" is better than you're; boyfriend is shortened to "bf"; "ppl" is people; and why just becomes "y." Commas, periods and uppercase letters sometimes disappear entirely.

And please no heavy international news or indigestible world history. The teens want only things that are relevant, as these postings suggest:

* "Any cute girl from my region wanna talk in a private chat room?"

* "What should I do if my bf cheats on me?"

* "Should I feel bad if I am the only virgin around?"

Peers give advice. In response to a 13-year-old who said she had an abortion after being raped and felt guilty, the replies at Bolt strongly favored her decision:

* "Don't let ANYONE tell you what you did was wrong. . . . No one else knows what you went through or what you are feeling."

* "Go girl! You made the decision that was right for you and you're strong enough to stand by it and talk about it! Congrats on achieving a level of maturity most people never manage."

Bolt's membership grew from 1.9-million in late February to 2.5-million this spring, Mount says. Other teen sites have some of Bolt's features, but add their own twists: gURL.com asks members to send in a scan or photocopy of their palms for palm readings; Alloy.com posts members' pictures and pairs them with a new look; and most sites teach teens the basics of Web design and host their home pages.

While teens enjoy these features, many such as Marsalisi aren't taking that extra step: looking at the ads and buying.

"The teen Web sites are there so people who have no way of reaching us will have a place to go," said Matt Fuller, a 10th-grader at Lakewood High School in St. Petersburg. "I close the pop-up ads even before I look at them."

Such reactions didn't surprise one expert.

"No one likes to admit that they are manipulated by the advertisement," said Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research who monitors the spending patterns of adolescents. "They don't need to pay attention to the ads. The influence is subtle. Teens are 47 percent more likely than the adults to click on the banners."

Despite the advertisers' best efforts, at least some teens remain out of their reach.

"Real teens don't go to teen sites, and teen sites are not real sites," said Walter Clark, a Lakewood 10th-grader. "Only the preteens and younger teens go to these sites."

"I am too busy," said Mike Nowotaiski, who graduated from Lakewood and will attend the University of Miami in the fall. "I don't go to the Web just to surf. I go there to look for information, and I just go to the normal, general sites, like Yahoo and Search.com."

Maybe Nowotaiski never visits the teen sites because he's busy running his own video production company. Boredom seems to be the top reason many teens spend time chatting online. In fact, Michelle Weir, one of Christina's friends at Bay Point Middle, regularly checks out a site called Bored.com, which promises "links to the most interesting sites on the Internet."

Media Metrix, which measures online traffic, reports the top five sites for 12- to 17-year-olds are AOL, Yahoo, MSN.com, Excite and Netscape, which are almost identical to adults' choices. AOL's instant messaging is wildly popular throughout middle and high schools. None of the teen sites ranks in the Top 20, although Bolt claimed 7.7-million visits in March.

Advertisers can reach the audience by carefully selecting where they spend their money, Forrester's Walsh says.

"People chatting online are least likely to pay attention to ads," Walsh said. "A community site with chatting as the main customer attraction and advertising fees as the main source of revenue has the worst possible combination."

Instead, better bets are probably entertainment sites, such as MP3.com, with downloadable music; sports sites such as ESPN.com that attract boys and girls; greeting card sites such as BlueMountain.com; or sites with college information.

But teens at Bay Point are a tough sell, and they're leery of buying anything online.

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