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Tracey S. Roth

Dot Com Commerce

Managing Editor, [email protected] CENTER CRM Solutions

[July 26, 2000]

Babes In Internet Land

Suggest to the average teenager nowadays that there was a time before the Internet, and you're likely to get a strange look. "But how did you send e-mail? What happened if you wanted to buy something from a store that didn't have a branch in your home town? You mean you had to wait until the evening news to get sports scores? How lame is that?" In a way, I liken it to my generation's discovery that as young people, my parents' families didn't have cars. I always had trouble swallowing this one. I still don't understand exactly how they got their groceries home.

E-commerce loves a young person. Forrester Research estimates that in 2000, people between the ages of 16 and 22 will spend $4.5 billion online. That's billion, with a "b." Assume that the under-16 age group is also getting in on the action. After all, an increasing amount of sites seem to be targeted at younger and younger audiences, the goal being to create not only customers today, but loyal shoppers for the future. There are, however, some sticky facts with which e-tailers targeting children and teenagers need to contend.

The Credit Problem
Young people under the age of 18 cannot get credit cards. Since a majority of Web transactions are credit card-based, this is an issue that has demanded the development of alternatives. Enter a company called RocketCash, which allows teens to create an online account, serviced through their e-mail addresses. The account can be set up by sending in a check or money order in advance, or using a parent's credit card, and kids can then choose from an extensive list of sites that work in conjunction with RocketCash (which is owned by ISP NetZero). Included are popular destinations such as Amazon, Beyond.com, CDNow, the Disney Store online, MP3.com and ToysRUs.com. This way, kids can't spend if there's no money in their accounts (I know a lot of adults that would benefit from this service!), it gives parents more control over how much kids spend online, and it helps encourage a sense of money management. Additionally, parents, friends and family members can buy kids gift certificates for RocketCash, allowing kids to choose what they want, and avoiding the horrible possibility of a parent or family member buying a CD that was big last Tuesday, but is so out today.

Remaining In Tune With The Young Mind
I almost used the word "hip" in the sub-heading above. But it occurred to me that the word "hip" is probably outrageously out-of-date in youth-speak nowadays. Here's a scenarioyou're a 35-year-old Web designer, or a 45-year-old marketing executive working for a dot com, and it's your job to design a site that's going to appeal to kids. How do you go about it? How do you know you're not using graphics, references and terminology -- not to mention offering products -- that are out of touch? Has the adult that is capable of keeping up with trends among young people been found yet? If one does exist, I'm sure someone has already hired him or her and thoroughly recognizes that person's value. I can't help recalling a scene from the 1980s John Cusack film Better Off Dead, in which the father of the lead character tries to communicate with his son using an outdated book called something like, How To Communicate With Your Teenager. After a stilted conversation about dating, the father attempts to end the talk on a positive note by smiling, offering a thumbs-up gesture and saying, "Right off!"

Kids Like Diversity
While adults are more likely to go online to check e-mail, read the news and sports scores or stock quotes and perhaps make a purchase, kids tend to view the Internet as a great social enabler. You're much more likely to find that a kid uses the Web just to surf and kill time, or perhaps enter a chat room. A static e-commerce site is not likely to appeal to them as much as say, a site that allows them to not only buy CDs, but discuss them with others and post reviews and, increasingly, download a song or portion of a song from that CD to see if it appeals to them.

Now, There's Legislation
As a result of some loud protests from parents, the Federal Trade Commission stepped forward in April to address the issue of protecting children online by passing the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Sites that direct their efforts toward children, particularly children under 13, must now have policies in place that outline the nature of the information they collect about surfing children and what they plan to do with it. To comply, the sites must implement a parental notification and approval system. It is now illegal to operate without doing so. This month, the FTC began randomly evaluating sites that cater to children in an effort to check for compliance. It found that roughly half of the sites it visited were in violation of the ruling and commenced sending e-mail to these companies, warning them of their lack of compliance. It is presumed that after the initial spot checking, the FTC will begin handing out steep fines.

Using Common Sense
If you've ever watched the Saturday morning cartoons (or perhaps you still do?), you know how ruthlessly some companies seem to market to children. Toy companies' commercials seem to become increasingly persistent in persuading children to make sure Mom and Dad buy them the latest and greatest in toy technology. But there's no personal contact involved between the marketer and the child, so it doesn't make parents quite as twitchy as, say, a stranger initiating a chat session with their child. (Ask any parent how they feel about knowing a strange adult is typing messages to their child, particularly an under-13 child, and you'll probably see them squirm.) Companies that direct their efforts toward children need to step carefully. They should know who is working in their contact centers and talking to kids. They should make sure their agents stick to scripts and never, ever overstep the boundaries of what questions they can and can't ask.

For the digital generation, buying things online will become as second nature as breathing. E-tailers today know this and are adjusting their practices to welcome these kids and teenagers with open arms. There's nothing wrong with that. Many of them need to realize, however, that navigating those waters means being a little more cautious. There will always be shady or just plain clueless companies in operation. (My 11-year-old niece recently received a pre-approved credit card offer e-mailed to her in her child-friendly America Online account.) It's going to take vigilance from parents, common sense from kids, genuine compliance from e-tailers and, occasionally, a poke from the government to make sure things don't get ridiculous.

The tragically unhip author may be contacted at troth@tmcnet.com.

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