For on-the-go generation wireless, medium is the message

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Latchkey kids used to go directly home and wait for the inevitable parental check-in call. While some still do, others are free to roam around after school untethered, relying on all manner of wireless gadgetry-cell phones, two-way pagers and handheld organizers enabled with e-mail service-to connect with at-work parents.

The good news for marketers is that kids are becoming the new "early adopters." They're embracing every technology from Web surfing and instant messaging via wireless phones and PCs, to portable gaming units and handheld organizers. Teen-agers and even pre-teens are becoming the new influencers of household decisions involving technology. As household PC penetration has climbed to around 70%, kids are growing up using computers and accessing the Internet. Their entire generation is at ease with technology and enthusiastic about going wireless. Marketers are salivating over a wireless generation that begins by age 10.

"Kids are looking to blend the cell phone with PDAs [personal digital assistants] and computers," said Rik Kinney, exec VP at 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."


The "everybody" he refers to is the wireless service providers including AT&T Wireless, Cingular Wireless, Verizon Wireless and VoiceStream Wireless Corp.

AT&T Wireless, which recently debuted a new brand platform dubbed "mLife" revolving around a mobile lifestyle (see story on Page S-4), 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?' " says James Peterson, AT&T Wireless VP-PR.

Rivals, most notably Cingular, have begun to make inroads with youth by offering features like customized ring tones and alert services 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 kids 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, 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 the PC to a wireless handset. So far, Brew is available only in the San Diego market.

Some 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," says 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" via 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, says NeoPets' Mr. Kinney. "Young people are using them to provide a direct, private connection to the outside world."

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