It should be a cinch to sell to teenagers on the Internet. Teens hang around online for hours on end. Many of them casually click buttons and banners -- unlike their timid parents. And they can be easily enticed, with a film clip, a sports highlight, or a song. The trouble? Lots of teens are short of cash, and most of them lack a credit card.
Facing cash-poor consumers like these, many Internet advertisers adopt the long view. They look to establish ties strong enough to stretch into that hazy future when the teen becomes creditworthy. Others, focusing on a far closer horizon, dive straight for kids' pocket change.
With all kinds of campaigns, many companies are stretching far beyond the traditional Internet ads, the banners, and the pop-ups. For case studies, look no further than Rite Aid (RAD ), the national chain of drugstores, and Dentyne, the sugarless chewing gum.
For Rite Aid, the third-largest drugstore chain in the U.S., teenage girls represent a vital strategic market. Sure, they often have limited funds. But looking good is a priority. It's during their teenage years that most young women make their first purchases of makeup and beauty aids. Says John Learish, Rite Aid's senior vice-president for marketing: "If we can attract that shopper early, we can cultivate a customer for life."
Two years ago, Rite Aid moved to target teenage girls on the Web. It was already spending plenty on promotion, producing 50 million newspaper fliers every week. But few of them were influencing teenage girls.
The challenge, Learish says, was somehow to make Rite Aid's 2,400 drugstores appealing to this target audience. Rite Aid hired Alloy, a New York-based youth-marketing company, for help. Alloy promptly designed a campaign to entice girls to a Rite Aid Web site, which in turn would lead them to the stores. "We wanted to use the Web site as a hub," says Alloy CEO Matt Diamond.
They called the Web site Glamcamp. It's colorful, decked out in provocative pink and electric blue. It offers sweepstakes, games, beauty tips, and lots of Rite Aid loyalty programs that pay off with free gear. The idea was to build it into a branded online community. Rite Aid advertised on radio and with in-store circulars and displays to get girls to visit the site.
Glamcamp worked. Some 80,000 teens now frequent it. They get points toward new products if they bring in friends. And every month, says Learish, 5,000 to 8,000 new members sign up.
Lots of the promotions send the girls to the nearest drugstore. But just as important for Rite Aid, the Glamcamp campaign has helped it build up a targeted database of 100,000. The trick now is to maintain ties to those customers as their spending power grows.
For Dentyne, a unit of Cadbury Adams, just reaching young consumers with its brand wasn't enough, says Victoria Lozano, director of marketing. It wanted to stick around with them for a while and to avoid "the traditional hard sell." But what Web page do kids of both genders hang out on for hours on end?
Working with i-Frontier, an advertising unit of digital marketer aQuantive (AQNT ), Lozano tracked down the target audience. She concluded that the closest thing to true online hangouts were the instant message boxes. Millions of teens keep several of them active at all times on the desktop, even while they're doing homework.
In October, Dentyne launched a promotion on Yahoo's Messenger, which lets users dress up their IM boxes with a variety of downloaded formats, known as skins. Choices now range from Pop Tarts to the latest Pixar movie, The Incredibles. Dentyne offers skins for three moods or personality types: flirty, daring, or playful. Each one is represented by a flavor of Dentyne gum: Fire, Ice, and Tango.
"We're becoming part of their daily experience," Lozano says. Better yet, the chatters share word of the free downloads to friends. On average, she says, 1.4 million people download each Yahoo skin every two months.
In another Dentyne promotion in October, the company sponsored an AOL virtual nightclub, called Red at Night. Lozano says Dentyne is shifting its ad budget, lowering spending in traditional media, such as TV, magazines, and coupon-packed inserts, and investing more on the Internet. "It's where we can find our high-target audience," she says.
And even as new advertising approaches come and go, that fact isn't likely to change.
By Stephen Baker in New York