|Marketers are zeroing in on the wireless generation.
Conducted over seven days in March, the random survey at the NeoPets.com site included responses from 3,050 individuals ranging in age from 5 to 23. More than 91% were 18 or younger.
Overall, 80% of the respondents said they used cell phones. This includes more than 57% of those aged 5 to 7, 76% of those 8 to 12 and 84% of those 13 to 18. And while only 28% of all 3,050 said they owned their own mobile phone, 79% of those who didn't said they wanted to.
As a group, they also expressed clear preferences for the aspects of cell phones they would most like to see improved. More than 54% want cell phone battery life enhanced so users can talk longer between recharges. More than 56% percent want cell phones that play music, 40% want to surf
"Kids are looking to blend the cell phone with PDAs [personal digital assistants] and computers," said Rik Kinney, executive vice president of NeoPets, a gaming Web site and youth market researcher. "Kids are using address books, Web surfing and calendar functions. ... Everybody is looking for easier and easier ways to put cell phones into kids' hands."
Marketers target children
The "everybody" he refers to is the rush of wireless service providers such as AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless Corp. that are focusing more marketing activities at children.
AT&T Wireless, which recently debuted a new brand platform, dubbed "mLife," that revolves around a mobile lifestyle, is looking to move aggressively into marketing wireless products and services to a diverse youth segment. AT&T Wireless plans to leverage the new mLife positioning to lure young people to its services, particularly text messaging.
"We hope mLife is one of the ways we're reaching this market segment ... talking more about lifestyle and personal style, 'What'll it do for me?'" said James Peterson, AT&T Wireless vice president of public relations.
Appeal of self-expression
Rivals, most notably Cingular, have begun to make inroads with youth by offering features such as customized ring tones, alert services and text-messaging features that appeal to individual self-expression. Nokia, the leading wireless handset marketer in the U.S., was the first to offer changeable faceplates for its phones.
For Verizon, Gen Wireless is 16- to 24-year-olds, a demographic it says represents 34.6 million teens and young adults who wield more than $150 billion in buying power.
The company has created products to get around the fact that children and young adults have no credit history. One service with youth appeal is FreeUp, a prepaid wireless calling program introduced last year. Under the plan, a phone comes with a $50 wireless calling card that offers long distance calling, voicemail, call waiting and text messaging, one of the most desired wireless features.
Verizon also has debuted Brew, a service targeting 22- to 25-year-olds with games and other services they can download from a PC to a wireless handset. So far, Brew is available only in the San Diego market.
Two of the most popular applications among Gen Wireless include gaming and text messaging. Young people often are on a family wireless service plan paid for by their parents. Text messaging and Web browsing via cell phone or a handheld device such as a Palm require subscribing to a carrier's wireless data service.
But the growth of wireless marketing and promotion targeting youth could be a dicey proposition.
"It's boiling down to Generation Wireless is very fickle. ... To get them to interact [with a marketer], they have to perceive value in what you're providing them," said Brian Levin, president-CEO of Mobliss, a Seattle-based wireless marketing company.
Mobliss has implemented wireless programs on behalf of VoiceStream, Alltel and AT&T Wireless. With VoiceStream and Alltel, Mobliss offered a "March Madness" college basketball game. Mobliss recently concluded wireless snow reports for ski buffs, and it offers games such as "The Price Is Right" and "Family Feud" through cell phone.
Mr. Levin says text messaging will benefit from an agreement among wireless carriers, expected by midyear, that will allow consumers who have different service plans to send messages to one another.
If marketers view cell phones as the ultimate one-to-one marketing vehicle, young people see them as empowerment tools, said NeoPets' Mr. Kinney. "Young people are using them to provide a direct, private connection to the outside world."