What Do Teens Want?

Using its online community, Habbo, Sulake surveyed some 58,000 teenagers to compile marketing data covering cosmetics to mobile-phone preferences

Nearly 59,000 captive teens might seem like every parent's worst nightmare. But for Helsinki (Finland)-based Sulake, such a group provided a pain-free way to gain valuable insight into what "kids these days" really care about.

Pain-free because Sulake runs Habbo, the nine-year-old virtual world that as of early June had some 100 million avatars, 9.5 million of them active on the site each month. And because Sulake could use the world as a platform to question the teens—virtually. Habbo's second Global Youth Survey features the results of a two-month-long poll conducted at the end of last year, which surveyed 58,486 teens in 31 countries. The findings were recently published in a 255-page report targeted at companies looking to market to the lucrative demographic.

To drum up the data, Sulake gave respondents an incentive to participate in the online survey (which took an average of 31 minutes to complete) with complimentary credits to purchase virtual goods such as furniture or decorations for their virtual rooms. Most respondents were from the U.S. (7,730), Britain (6,001), and Germany (4,819), while Peru (100), Russia (99), and Malaysia (90) yielded the fewest participants. Males made up 56% of respondents. The bulk of participants, 65%, were between 13 and 16 years old.

Avon or CoverGirl?

Like an anthropological yearbook, the report paints an intriguing portrait of teens' brand preferences and how they prefer to spend their time online. Globally, brands including Coca-Cola (KO), McDonald's (MCD), and Nike (NKE) ranked as the most popular. Broken down by country, the results could be instructive for companies looking to better target potential customers. Latin American teens, for instance, by far prefer Avon's (AVP) cosmetic products while Americans prefer CoverGirl.

Perhaps the most surprising set of findings regarded teens' views of mobile telephone brands, which have rapidly changed in the 18 months since the first survey was completed. Despite still being the favored handset maker in 15 of 31 countries, Nokia (NOK) lost ground to Sony Ericsson (SNE) and Samsung, which have become favorites in countries such as Germany, Denmark, and Switzerland. Usage has changed too: While 38% of teens used their phones to listen to music in 2006, 71% now do so.

These results, says Emmi Kuusikko, Sulake's director of user and market insight, are emblematic of the valuable kinds of marketing data accessible through services like Habbo. "The teen mobile-phone market is competitive and lucrative," she says. "But it is clear that by developing phones that deliver an engaging user experience across applications, such as listening to MP3s, mobile brands can attract a new teen audience to their devices."

Real-World Research Reigns

Sulake is at the vanguard of virtual-world providers attempting to mine their users for potentially lucrative marketing data, says Barry Gilbert, vice-president for research at Boston-based Strategy Analytics. According to Gilbert, over the next decade as many as 22% of global broadband users will have registered for one or more virtual worlds, creating a market of nearly 1 billion digital participants worth at least $8 billion a year. "There's a huge conversion, especially with kids, from classic Saturday morning cartoons to these online worlds," he adds.

David Wertheimer, executive director of the Entertainment Technology Center at the University of Southern California, adds: "You can learn a lot by observing what people do and say in these worlds, and in the future we'll all probably be augmenting research by interviewing people around the world virtually."

Wide adoption of such attitudes is not widespread just yet, however. Sulake had to drastically lower the price of its report, from $5,000 in 2007 to just $730 this year. Kuusikko says that while many potential buyers expressed interest last year, few were willing to pay what would be considered a standard fee for other marketing research reports. Many potential customers apparently expected the survey data would be free, she adds. And while Linden Research's Second Life was hailed at its inception, activity has waned, with 1 million monthly visitors. It could be years before survey data gathered from virtual worlders is considered on a level with other, "real-world" research.

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