Just Surfin' Through

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Levi Strauss & Co. thought it had the killer formula to drive young, online consumers to its Web site. The jeans maker let visitors listen to tunes via the Levi's Music Channel, and last year, it posted a petition to end violence in schools. Visitors could even enter a contest to win a guitar signed by musician Sugar Ray. There was just one problem: none of these gimmicks had anything to do with jeans. Traffic to the site waned. By last spring, according to Media Metrix, levi.com was attracting less than 10,000 unique visitors aged 18 to 24 each month (by comparison, more than 200,000 young adults dropped by Yahoo! monthly). Then, in November, Levi's announced that it would discontinue selling jeans at its site and allow e-retailers like macys.com to do so instead. That decision, says Ekaterina Walsh, an analyst at Forrester Research, won't wash with Levi's target audience. "Pulling out of e-commerce is completely against what its target market wants online," she says. "Younger consumers are pragmatic, convenience-focused, and value-focused."

Ironically, Levi's is a top brand among young online consumers, according to a recent Forrester survey of 8,500 Netizens aged 16 to 22. Forrester asked them to rate the likability of 51 brands, everything from Pepsi to Sprint, Land's End to CDNow. In its report, "Branding for a Net Generation," the research firm contends that being a cool brand with young adults doesn't necessarily guarantee that those hipsters will frequent your Web site - or vice versa. Only six of the 15 top-rated brands on the list, including Intel and Wal-Mart, also show up among the most-visited sites by young consumers. In comparison, 12 of the 15 brands at the bottom of the popularity scale, including America Online and Apple, attract at least a half a million young surfers to their sites each month. That's quite a few eyeballs, but don't equate the high numbers with brand allegiance, Walsh warns. Take America Online, for example. It may boast a high number of visitors aged 18 to 24, but the average time spent on AOL by these consumers is just four minutes per session (the average among adults overall is 13 minutes). Young adults basically use AOL to get online - and then quickly escape to the World Wide Web. Says Walsh: "To young consumers, American Online has become `my father's ISP.'"

Then there's Wal-Mart, which, unlike Levi's, offers nothing on its Web site to appeal directly to young consumers and yet scores high in both brand preference and Web site traffic. What gives? Walsh says the answer is simple: Young consumers want sites that are useful, and walmart.com delivers. Indeed, the top feature that draws 16-to-22-year-olds to a consumer-products Web site is the availability of customer service and technical support - not games, chat rooms, or cool graphics, the Forrester report finds. Other things important to young consumers: up-to-date content, product information, coupons, and fast downloads. Seven out of ten respondents told Forrester that it's more convenient to shop online, and 64 percent say it saves time.

So what's a megabrand like Coke to do? It ranked first in brand preference in Forrester's survey, but attracts less than 10,000 unique visitors each month who are between the ages of 18 to 24. "The Web is not a vending machine," Walsh says. "Coke is making a mistake by jamming its site with games and other peripheral things. It doesn't need to have a proprietary mass-appeal site in order to build brand equity online. Instead, it should focus on placing banner ads and sponsorships wherever its target market is online." In other words, should Coke, among others, just accept that its target consumer is going elsewhere in cyberspace? Precisely, Walsh says.

For more information about the report, contact Forrester Research at (617) 497-7090.

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