A new study reveals that today’s teenagers are more wired and Web-savvy than ever but also indicates that they are embracing non-traditional means to use the Internet — bypassing e-mail in favor of instant messaging, for instance — a trend that experts say will force the e-commerce industry to be more creative in order to reach that audience.
The Pew Internet and American Life Project said the number of 12- to 17-year-olds online grew 24 percent in the past four years and now stands at just under 90 percent of them online, with more than half going on the Web at least once a day. Forty-five percent of teens have used cell phones, and a third have sent text messages. Young people are also going online more often and using more Internet services than in the past.
While the Pew survey found that more teens are shopping, reading news and getting health information online, it also revealed a much wider variety in terms of how they get online, with traditional PC-based Web access and services that thrive on that platform, including e-mail, being set aside for newer technologies.
“Increasing numbers of teenagers live in a world of nearly ubiquitous computing and communication technologies that they can access at will,” said Amanda Lenhart, senior research specialist at the project, who co-wrote the report. “More and more teens go online frequently and from a wider array of places. They take ever-greater advantage of this new technology ecology by mastering features like instant messaging and phone-text messaging on their tethered and mobile computing devices.”
The report carries a double-edged message for the Internet and e-commerce industries. Because teens are more Web-savvy than ever, they are poised to become an ideal audience for marketing to and selling to online. However, the survey also suggests they will be a less cohesive audience than today’s Web users, using more devices and channels to go online, forcing retailers and marketers to create new strategies to reach them with their messages and offers.
For instance, the survey found that teens vastly prefer instant messaging and text messaging to e-mail communications, indicating that the e-mail marketing industry will have to evolve in order to keep pace. Teens who took part in Pew focus groups said they see e-mail as a way of communicating with adults, such as teachers or parents, rather than as a personalized means to chat with friends.
Teens favor both the immediacy of instant messaging and the opportunities it offers for personal expression, with the use of icons and customized IM screens.
The report shows teens as seeking to always be connected, moving from computers at home to those at friends’ and relatives’ homes to those in public locations such as libraries and schools. That might be a strong indication that strong mobile Internet services will resonate with young people.
Forrester Research analyst Charlene Li said the Web and e-commerce industries are already busy laying the foundation for the changing technology environment. One problem, however, is that it’s not clear how the Internet will be accessed in the future.
“Some people believe smartphones will win the day, others aren’t sure that’s a medium that people will feel comfortable buying and shopping with,” Li told the E-Commerce Times. “The major Internet brands are busy trying to make sure they’re the place people will turn regardless of how they’re getting onto the Web.”
In fact, recent days have seen AOL launch a new mobile-friendly search service and Yahoo get its applications pre-loaded onto Motorola phones.
Other studies have hinted at the same migration away from traditional Web-browser based Internet interactions toward more connected uses that rely on other applications, such as gaming, media player software and chat.
However, the main reasons people turn to the Web haven’t changed much in the past decade.
Studies by the Yankee Group have found that e-mail was the top online activity, followed by news and information gathering and a three-way tie among shopping, banking and instant messaging. Most analysts say that breakdown is changing, especially among younger users, who are an important demographic because they spend more time online than older users and because they are the future of the industry.
There’s no doubt that Web companies are interested in capturing the eyes of young Web users. The purchases of MySpace.com parent company Intermix by Hearst Corp. and of Neopets.com by MTV parent Viacom underscore the importance of the young demographic to marketers.