Why do teenagers act the way they do? Bolt.com thinks it has a way to provide Corporate America with some insights. Its idea is simple: Youthful cybersurfers from around the globe visit Bolt.com, a community portal where Gen-Yers ages 15 to 24 discuss everything from sex to music. A registration process records basic demographic information from visitors. Bolt then monitors the teens' activity on the site, compares it to the mostly anonymous information gathered during registration, and creates market profiles tailored to the needs of its high-profile clients, including the likes of Procter & Gamble, Eastman Kodak, AOL Time Warner, and AT&T.
Clients are also given the option of posting banner ads and polls throughout Bolt's pages. P&G's Covergirl cosmetic line is now running a poll asking Bolt members "What's your favorite Ben Affleck film?" Says Anne Martin, manager of global cosmetics marketing for P&G Cosmetics: "Partnering with a site like Bolt, one of the top sites reaching teens, is obviously a great match." The poll doesn't directly pitch Covergirl products, although banner ads elsewhere on the site do.
So far, Bolt's service seems to be selling. More than 100 companies have paid for its data, says a site spokesperson who declines to discuss how much it charges. Why are these companies using Bolt? "Eighteen-year-olds don't have a lot of brand affinity," CEO Dan Pelson says. "It's a critical time for companies to develop a relationship."
"TOMORROW'S SOCCER MOMS."
A spokesperson for P&G, Wendy Jacques agrees: "It boils down to understanding the consumers for our individual brands." She adds that services such as Bolt help establish lifetime purchasing choices. "There's something to be said for the fact that today's soccer kids are tomorrow's soccer moms and dads."
Jupiter Research estimates that 12- to 24-year-olds represent a global market of some 90 million. So, listening in while teenagers discuss dating and lament their shopping woes can be valuable to multinationals targeting teens and young adults. According to Jupiter, teens spend an average of $248 each per year on e-commerce. By 2005, that spending should nearly double to $435. Total Internet-related spending by teens (either goods purchased online directly or offline purchases influenced by the Net) should hit $26 billion by 2005, estimates Jupiter.
Eric Lent, Kodak's director of youth marketing, says the company developed a relationship with Bolt because it recognized that Generation Y is a driving force in family technology purchases. The company also anticipates that its relationship with Bolt will expand, Lent says, possibly by allowing Bolt visitors to access Kodak's online services, such as printing digital picture.
Bolt's teen members use "tag-books," a question-and-answer forum similar to a chat room, as a method for contacting each other individually and posting questions to the community. Bolt also prompts discussions with provocative posts, such as, "Are condoms 100% effective?" This means users generate most of the site's content, with the exception of commercially generated polls.
However, Bolt's uncensored nature could also pose a problem for companies hesitant to place their name next to content that might not mesh with their image. Ford Motor, for one, has been using Bolt's services for well over a year, yet the carmaker's name is nowhere to be found on the site.
Bolt's format seems just fine to Covergirl. Teens seek advice from their peers, especially about more difficult beauty issues, and Bolt provides a forum that allows Covergirl to unobtrusively observe that uncensored interaction. "A lot of what we're doing here is basic business 101," Pelson says. "Visitors to the site basically leverage each other."
Just how popular Bolt is depends on whom you ask. Jupiter says 768,000 unique users visited Bolt's U.S. site in April and spent an average of 15.6 minutes on it. Bolt claims the real number is more than 1 million visitors monthly.
However, judging from the success of sites like Alloy.com, a community site where young people can interact and shop for everything from clothes to magazines, being popular isn't the only thing that pays. At Alloy, e-commerce is king. It's one of the key reasons the site racked up $91.2 million in revenue for the fiscal year ended January, 2001, a 37% increase over the previous year. Bolt, however, doesn't sell goods directly. "It's not an e-commerce model," Pelson says. A brave move in today's parched Internet environment.
Like Bolt, Alloy distributes user information to various corporate clients, and privacy is a hot issue for visitors to both sites. Alloy's users aren't always anonymous since the site sometimes asks for personally identifiable information for various reasons, including e-commerce. Because Bolt's goal is not direct e-commerce, the need for personally identifiable info, like home addresses, is limited. Bolt's corporate clients can identify users only by screen names and the anonymous information that Bolt collects in the registration process.
Information that can't be associated with a specific person -- like age, sex, Zip code, and birthdate -- Bolt considers fair game to sell. Bolt's visitors might not know this information is being sold unless they take the time to read through the privacy agreement reachable from a link at the bottom of each page.
Still, Electronic Privacy Information Center spokesperson Andrew Shen calls Bolt's privacy agreement "pretty much standard." He says privacy is an issue only when personally identifiable information is collected, including street address, name, and e-mail. Although Bolt does collect e-mail addresses, its users have control over who is allowed access to them.
If Bolt has its way, it'll be collecting info on teens worldwide. It has already expanded beyond the U.S. to Canada, England, and Australia. Since teen tastes vary from country to country, Bolt figures it will be able to offer perspectives on overseas teen markets to multinationals and local foreign companies alike.
The site's audience is certainly a closely watched segment of consumers, and while its market research has made it popular with several big-name companies, Bolt hasn't yet proved profitable. Though Bolt and its investors decline to disclose specifics, it has recently attracted companies such as Bechtel Enterprises, Highland Capital Partners, Oak Investment Partners, Moore Capital, and Sandler Capital Management as investors. This has kept it afloat while other dot-coms flounder.
If Bolt hopes to be one of the ultimate survivors, it'll have keep both its fickle young audience and its demanding corporate clients happy. No easy trick there.
By Marta Roberts in Washington
Edited by Beth Belton