online research: The Surfer in the Family

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The Web offers a new way to talk to kids, but are you ready to listen?

It's Friday night at a suburban Chicago theater, the opening weekend for Scream 3, the hottest slash flick series to come along in years. Adults cringe at the sight of dozens of pre- and post-pubescent teens gathered in packs at the ticket counter, all torqued up for an evening of unsupervised fun with their friends.

In line, Brian, 14, and five of his friends are waiting to buy tickets for the 8:15 show. Asked whether they checked the newspaper for show times, Brian and his companions hoot at the question. "I've got my movie theaters on my Yahoo! site," responds Brian. "My parents read the papers, but mostly I tell them what time the movies are."

Brian may not be able to drive, but he can surf to sites that tell him exactly what he wants to know. And he's not alone. According to New York-based Jupiter Communications, an Internet research firm, kids aged 8 to 12 and teens aged 13 to 22 are the largest growth sectors of the Internet population. In 1998, approximately 8.6 million kids and 8.4 million teens were online. By 2002, the research firm predicts 21.9 million kids and 16.6 million teens will be online. With a mean annual income of $3,000, young consumers (aged 16-to-22 -years-old) represent a $37 billion market online, reports Forrester Research of Cambridge, Massachusetts.

"Brand preferences for many kids are established by the time they're 12," says John Geraci, vice president of youth research at Harris Interactive, a market research and polling firm in Rochester, New York. "They have very firm ideas about what they want to spend their money on. But the interesting thing about the Internet is that it's not so unusual for a parent to ask his kid to research an adult purchase, such as a car or a vacation. Suddenly, you see why this technology gives kids so much influence."

They've got money to spend, but understanding the fickle kids market is tricky. How can companies figure out which trends will last - and which will fizzle by the end of the week? Smart marketers are going online to get answers. They're conducting online focus groups, surveys, chat sessions - whatever it takes to get a quick read on kids. Several market research firms now offer kids' online research, and demand for the service is expected to climb. Overall, online research today is a $200 million business, accounting for just 5 percent of the estimated $4 billion spent annually on market research in the United States. By 2001, analysts predict that 20 percent of market research expenditures will be for online research.

It's easy to see why online research appeals to marketers with tight budgets to maintain. Costs are often 30 percent to 50 percent less than in-person surveying and focus groups, experts say. Staffing requirements are nil, as are food, transportation, and meeting expenses for the kids. Kids often participate in the online research project because they get paid to do so - sometimes in cash, but usually in gift points or certificates that pay for entertainment, such as movies.

Still, Internet research shouldn't have marketers rubbing their hands together, says Julie Halpin, CEO of the Geppetto Group, a youth-focused advertising and marketing agency in New York City. "We look at online research as another piece of the puzzle, not a replacement piece for focus groups or other forms of qualitative and quantitative research," she says. "It's very effective at gathering responses quickly. It pinpoints changing trends and attitudes faster than anything to date. But it's only one tool. You don't use a hammer to screw in a screw."

Parents are the first stop in talking to kids online. The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which goes into effect April 21, requires the operators of any Web site that collects data from kids under 13 to obtain detailed parental permission before the child can enter the site. COPPA also requires the posting of strict privacy policies that will safeguard the child and his family from those who may attempt to steal their information online.

In general, market research firms have already responded to COPPA with "parent permission only" policies - and not just for kids under 13. Many concede that the permissions issue became especially important after the Columbine High School massacre last year, when it was learned that the assailants had used the Internet to plan their attack.

Shelly Bracken, vice president of research services for Digital Marketing Services, a division of America Online, supervises AOL's Opinion Place, which conducts incentive-based online research with children and adults. To get kids' names, AOL uses mailing lists from children's organizations, but everyone under 13 must get parental approval before they can answer questions at the site. "We want the parent to supervise the child," says Bracken, "and we don't want them to think we'd ask anything they wouldn't want their child to be asked."

Halpin of the Geppetto Group says that once kids have cleared permissions, research can take many forms. Kids can answer yes/no questions on a site, or send their impressions of a product or service via e-mail. "You're also able to ask more open-ended questions online," explains Halpin. "You find out what it is about Scream 3 that makes it important. When we get an answer from a kid or a teen that's interesting, we can go back to him and ask, `You said you liked being afraid? Is there a difference between being afraid at the movies and in real life?'"

How does this interaction differ from what goes on in a typical focus group? "You have the advantage of respondents being able to think in the privacy of their own room, without peer pressure," says Halpin. "In a focus group, kids check each other out, see who's prettiest, who's dressed how. Generally we are able to get a more thoughtful answer [online]."

But how do you know that the person giving the answer is a 12-year-old boy - and not a 25-year-old acting the part? Research firms that work with both parents and their kids say they can build more integrity into their sample, but it's far from foolproof, they concede. Then there is the issue of who's online. Statistics show that children in lower-income families and minority households have less access to the Internet.

"Fortunately, the digital divide is closing a little bit each day," says Geraci at Harris Interactive. The market research firm, which started doing online research with kids last fall, uses a weighting method known as propensity score adjustment and conducts parallel phone studies to generate weighting targets. Compensating for demographic imbalances in a population is straightforward from a research standpoint, says Geraci. The trickier issue is to compensate for attitudinal differences between those online and those offline. "Online users have more of an early adopter mentality, are more forward-thinking, and are, by definition, more technically astute than their offline counterparts," he adds.

Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA) is one organization that's starting to build a database of online research, but it stresses that the results it collects will be used for educational, not commercial, purposes. In January, Girl Scouts launched a survey at SmartGirl.com, a leading Web site targeted to teenage girls, to find out how girls viewed their relationships with friends, siblings, and parents, and about their fears related to their changing bodies. The results will be made public this month.

"It's the first step in the creation of the new Girl Scouts Research Institute, which we'll launch formally this summer," says Ellen Christie Ach, spokeswoman for GSUSA. "We are constantly upgrading our programs, and we think the Internet is going to allow us to accomplish that even faster." The organization hopes to work with various Internet-based companies in developing future research on the Web.

Parry Aftab, author of A Parent's Guide to the Internet and founder of CyberAngels.org, an online security group for parents and children, thinks online marketing research is fine as long as marketers limit the information they collect.

"The problem happens when marketers turn piggish," she says. "Do they absolutely need to know that Sally Jones lives at 16 Jones Street and likes red sneakers better than yellow ones? No. They need to know her ZIP code, that she's 10, and that she's female. Knowing her name and her address doesn't help them sell sneakers. That's what marketers have to learn."

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