America's next top tween searcher

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For being marketers, we can be a dense lot when it comes to understanding our audience's online behavior. It happens to the best of us; I most certainly recall many fruitless boardroom discussions in a tizzy over what consumers want. Make that, what we thought consumers wanted. Sad, but true. Perhaps this is why I get such a kick out of conversations with the experts: real, live Internet users. Bonus points if they don't work in the interactive or advertising space. And this is exactly what happened this weekend, when my niece, Hannah, came to visit the city. On the cusp of turning 11, Hannah had some pretty strong feelings about her use of the Internet. Our conversation went something like this:

Sara: Do you use the Internet?

Hannah: Of course.

Sara: Really. What do you do?

Hannah: I play games.

S ara: What types of sites do you like?

Hannah: Webkins, American Girl, Disney Channel, Animal Planet.

Sara: How do you know to go to these sites?

Hannah: I read it in a magazine. Like, there will be a page that says "go to americangirl.com." Or on TV. It just tells you to go there.

So far, we are on track with the average tween online behavior. A 2006 study by interactive shop Refinery suggests that 8-11 year olds' prefer to use the web to play games. While there is something about the word "gaming" that conjures up acne-prone teens, I supposed that online games can be much like any offline game. Teens, on the other hand, tend to use the web for social interaction.

Sara: Do you search on the Internet?

Hannah: Yes.

Sara: What site do you use?

Hannah: Google.

Sara: What do you call that kind of site?

Hannah: I don't know….I just call it Google.

Sara: Hmmm. Have you ever heard the word search engine?

Hannah: Nope.

Sara: So what do you search for on Google?

Hannah: Scuba stuff, horses. Once I looked up information on the Chinese New Year and wrote it all down. It was about the year of the monkey. Then I found out it was wrong because that site was built in 2002 so it was old.

Sara: How does Google work?

Hannah: You put in what you want and you see lots of lists.

Sara: Do you click on the list on the left or the right?

Hannah: (draws me a picture of Google and points to organic results)

Sara: Why don't you click on the right?

Hannah: I guess I never pay attention.

Sara: Do you get good results?

Hannah: Usually, but if you put in those things like parentheses…no…what do you call those things when someone is speaking?

Sara: Quotes?

Hannah: Yeah. If you put it in quotes, then it searches for those exact words. Otherwise it's going to find everything with the word "the" in it. (rolls her eyes.)

Sara: How did you know to do that?

Hannah: Mom. She told me about one month ago.

At this point, I am completely blown away. Maybe I should take Hannah on some pitches with me as a traveling "consumer of the future" exhibit. I decide to take the conversation up a notch.

Sara: Have you heard of Wikipedia?

Hannah: Yes, but I don't use it anymore because Mom said that it's not always right. Now I use a dictionary to find definitions (yes, a book).

Sara: Do you have an e-mail address?

Hannah: Yes.

Sara: Do you IM?

Hannah: No.

I'm suddenly thrown for a loop. I thought all kids preferred IM. Then I realize that perhaps she's just a bit too young. I make a wager.

Sara: I'm going to bet you will start IMing within the next year.

Hannah: Well (giggling), I think it will be sooner, because a friend just e-mailed me asking me "Hey Hannah, do you IM?" (Her mother cringes, burying her head into her hands.)

Sara: Do you watch online video?

Hannah: No. I only had interest in YouTube for about 3 days after I had seen all the funny videos like 10 times. I got bored.

Sara: How often do you go online?

Hannah: 3 times a week. Mostly when I am bored and there is nothing good on television.

Sara: What would you rather have? TV or Internet?

Hannah: TV.

Ok, so TV wins out. Hannah returns to her breakfast, but then suddenly gets excited about one of her brother's favorite sites.

Hannah: So my brother goes on Cartoon Network to play Big Fat Awesome Houseparty. You have a user name and password and create an imaginary person. I have a guy named Bonk. He's a spring with a cap and bounces around. It's more fun than TV, because every time you watch television you kill brain cells. Now that I think about it, maybe the Internet is better.

Suddenly it hits me: Big Fat Awesome Houseparty is Second Life on training wheels, much like www.barbiegirls.com. Heck, if my niece can play pretend with a spring coil avatar, my guess is that this generation will not only require connectivity, but social and virtual facets of every Web site they visit. It's decided. The next time I'm sitting at one of those awful boardroom meetings, I'm calling up Hannah.

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