A Youth E-Marketer’s Dream

A Youth E-Marketer’s Dream

For any youth marketer or trend specialist,
access to 42,000-plus international teen opinions on what online gaming
Web sites they frequently visit, what brands they like, or whether
they’d rather use a PC for instant messaging than for playing games or
purchasing goods can be valuable indeed.

Imagine asking 42,000 tech-savvy tweens and
teenagers around the globe about their buying and spending habits, as
well as their brand preferences. How long would it take to conduct such
market research? If you wanted to zero in on kids who regularly played
online games or engaged in networked communities in Web-based virtual
worlds, how would your market-research team target them and then verify
their activity in these online parallel universes?

Sulake, the Helsinki (Finland) company that created Habbo,
a popular eight-year-old virtual world aimed at teens, found a way to
survey more than 42,000 such consumers in 22 countries, by soliciting
responses to questions about real-world global shopping preferences
from Habbo avatars. Its first Global Habbo Youth Survey, conducted in
association with Finnish market researcher 15/30,
was published in the form of a 200-plus page report earlier this year,
and it’s now available to curious corporations for US$5,000.

In September, Sulake will conduct a second survey, this time without
an outside partner. The process of surveying teens on this massive,
global scale via their avatars was so efficient, Habbo decided that
there is no need for external help. "We found we could gather this data
in about a week," says Emmi Kuusikko, director of user and market
insight at Sulake. "It is extremely rewarding to carry out this
quantitative research. The [teens] were so eager to participate. They
were in their own environment, an environment they can trust."


Ozzy Osbourne Dropped By

Habbo is a cartoony virtual world where teens create retro, highly
pixelated alter egos. They can meet up in public spaces, build and
participate in social networks, listen to streaming music, and also
create their own rooms and furnish them with digital versions of
furniture and doodads that they pay real money for. Celebrities also
enter Habbo as avatars: Heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne and pop star
Lily Allen have visited Habbo’s British site, while BMX champion Matt
Hoffman’s avatar hung out in the U.S. site.

Major corporations including Nintendo buy advertising  space, such as a virtual billboards, or sponsor themed gathering spots for avatars, such as Target’s
Red Sky Lounge. To date, 76 million avatars have been created since
Habbo opened in 1999. By contrast, 8.7 million avatars have been made
in Second Life in its four-year life span.

In the past, Sulake had used data on flesh-and-blood Finnish teens
gathered by youth market research specialist 15/30 to help identify
real-life trends that they might apply to the design and development of
Habbo sites. (There are different sites for various countries; teens in
29 nations worldwide log onto language-specific Habbo sites each day.)
Sulake also conducts panels within Habbo to receive feedback and ideas
on game-play in Habbo games, as well as on elements of the virtual
world’s home page design.

However, then Sulake realized it could tap its millions of avatars
for information on real-life teen trends around the world. "We wanted
to focus on how users are behaving and how they are buying. At first,
we thought we would simply use [the information] for internal purposes,
for product development," says Kuusikko. "Then we saw that we could do
global research about teens’ lives." So Sulake and 15/30 solicited
respondents in 22 nations across Europe, North America and Asia by
sending a message to their avatars, which users received when they
logged into their accounts. This linked to an external, Web-based
questionnaire. The scope of the responses exceeded all expectations.

An International Portrait

Participants spent an average of 33 minutes answering dozens of
questions on their backgrounds, tastes, and their shopping and media
consumption habits. Participants were given a reward of Habbo credits
to purchase virtual goods in Habbo. Sulake’s internal market-research
team and the 15/30 staff audited the data for potentially fraudulent
responses, which were removed (about 4.7 percent of all responses).

The remaining 42,409 were then analyzed. Most (8,852) came from
Britain, followed by the U.S. (3,747) and Norway (3,244). The fewest
responses were from Venezuela (197), Portugal (175), and Austria (90).
Response was split pretty equally between genders: 51 percent of survey
takers were female, 49 percent male. Most respondents were in the 13-
to 15-year-old age group (60 percent), followed by 16- to 18-year-olds
(19 percent). Only 12 percent were 12 and under, and 10 percent were 19
and older.

The survey breaks down the data by nation, and also presents an
overall, international portrait of teens today, although the survey is
limited by the number of nations with Habbo sites (India, for example,
is not represented). The breadth of the data, and the report’s clear
organization, could help global companies better target teens in
certain areas. British teens, for example, prefer rap and hip-hop over
other musical genres, Brazilians prefer rock. Japanese kids like pop
music the best. So recruiting a hard-rock celebrity to endorse a
product to appeal to a British or Japanese audience could flop, whereas
it might fly in Brazil.

Some trend watchers think mining virtual worlds for teen-trend data
is a logical and timely market-research strategy. "The membrane between
our real and our virtual worlds has become very thin, especially for
teens today. Most of their social interaction takes place with a
screen, whether it’s on social-networking sites, instant messaging,
using a cell phone to take photos or watch TV, or even just plain
e-mailing," observes Robyn Waters, former vice president of trend,
design and product development at Target and now the head of an
eponymous trend-watching firm.

"For this generation, interacting in the virtual world isn’t just a
trend. It’s their life," Waters continues. "Trend watching in virtual
worlds makes sense for any business in today’s environment that wants
to be around for the next generation."

Questioning Data Reliability

However, other professional trend watchers warn that marketers
should remember the demographic that’s being represented, specifically,
a teen who likes online games and prefers, or is at least comfortable
with, having a digital alter ego. Teens who like to be authentic about
their personalities and who lean toward uploading photographs to Facebook.com
might differ in shopping habits from those who create cartoon-like
selves in Habbo, cautions Heidi Dangelmaier, chief executive of 3iYing, a marketing firm that relies on teenage girls to develop marketing strategies for companies such as Virgin Mobile.

"With Facebook and MySpace ,
it’s clear that many teen girls, at least, are interested in reality,
rather than in virtual worlds," says Dangelmaier, a former consultant
to video game companies such as Electronic Arts (Nasdaq: ERTS) and Sega,
for which she researched girls’ relationships to games. "When surveying
what kids want in the real world within an online multiplayer game or
virtual world, it’s important to ask, exactly who’s in there?" she says.

Habbo relies on teens to provide information about themselves, says
Teemu Huuhtanen, Sulake’s president in charge of global development of
Habbo. "We don’t ask that much information when they register," he
says. This raises questions about the reliability of the survey’s data, of course. However, the relative anonymity of the
survey’s responses is not much different from those garnered, say, by
an online poll on a popular Web site. Verifying site visitors’ true
ages and identities is a broader challenge facing all Web sites,
whether geared toward online gambling or social networking. Until that’s resolved satisfactorily, self-reporting of personal data is all that’s readily available.

For any youth marketer or trend specialist, access to 42,000-plus
international teen opinions on what online gaming Web sites they
frequently visit, what brands they like, or whether they’d rather use a
for instant messaging than for playing games or purchasing goods can be
valuable indeed. To gather such broad data on such a large scale within
an online virtual world is certainly an innovative use of the gaming
genre. With the second Global Habbo Youth Survey coming up this fall,
the data from this year’s book will have serve as a valuable baseline
for a new type of teen marketing research.

© 2007 The McGraw-Hill Cos.. All rights reserved.
© 2007 ECT News Network. All rights reserved.

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