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IQ News: Analysis: Teens Build Web Dream

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Teen Site Bolt Lets Its Target Market Do The Talking.
What do teenagers want online? That could be called the $63 billion question--at least that's how much Northbrook, Ill.-based Teen Research Unlimited says they spend in a year. With the realization that teens are flocking to cyberspace, ad-sponsored sites are scrambling to reflect the tastes of today's Net-surfing adolescents.
Making its debut this week is the fifth version in two years of the successful teen-themed Web site, Bolt. Judging from its latest incarnation at www.bolt.com, what teens want today is a personalized portal with online calendars, auctions and horoscopes--but mostly they want to read each others' words.
Around 95 percent of the site's content is written by teens themselves. At Bolt parent company Concrete Media's offices in New York's SoHo, the adult staff is responsible for editorial decisions and professional page design, but otherwise these Web pages are all targeted at 15-19 year-olds. There isn't even any grown-up censorship; rather, the self-regulating community occasionally ousts one of its own for abusive language. Teens' words appear as comments accompanying numerous online opinion polls, through stringer and eyewitness reports of news events and even in a section for budding journalists' items banned from their school newspapers. There's also plenty of room for views on everything from the latest hot singer's video to which professional wrestling organization is the most awesome.
The result is high credibility and loyalty among its target audience, according to Dan Pelson, Concrete Media CEO. "Teens are tough to get to subscribe to anything, but here we are with 700,000 registered users, over half coming to Bolt at least once a week," he said.
And he's not just talking nerdy guys or geek grrls. Bolt skews about equally male and female, drawing teens sharing concerns not always voiced in traditional media; it has 1.7 million unique visitors a month. "When we started, the number one concern was the environment," he recalls. "Now it's health issues related to AIDS."
Pelson, at 33, a veteran of several well-known Silicon Alley startups, is accustomed to evolving content to adapt to the shifting interests of the audience. He was co-creator of Word, one of the first Internet-only magazines, and followed that up with Charged, a site for extreme sports. He also directed the production of over 20 custom online properties, including sites for CBS News, Saab and London Records.
Bolt embodies a teen obsession of Pelson's: his regret at not having gotten direct feedback from students at a prospective college before making his own poor choice of schools.
For advertisers, the teen-toned format, as they say, is "da bomb." Current advertisers include Coca-Cola, which has done little online media buying, Intel and Clinique. "A year ago you couldn't talk to the large brands about reaching teens on the Internet," Pelson notes. "It all started to turn around about nine months ago. Now advertisers understand the importance of reaching out to the consumer segment moving fastest to new media and away from traditional ones. A lot of what we're running are first-time ad campaigns for teens online."
Adding to advertiser appeal is the customization possible from asking teen members just three questions: age, sex, and ZIP code. "Using data base information, we've targeted ads to teens in just New York City and the South for a Bell South promotion. Another advertiser wanted to reach women over 18 for a free beauty CD," he recalls.
Among those trying out the online advertising environment is the Exact brand of acne medication, a print advertiser in Seventeen and Teen magazines. "We looked at what the print publications are doing online and decided to go with Bolt instead because it's edgy, like the Web," explains Gerard Matthews, director of marketing at The Lander Co., the Englewood, N.J.-based maker of Exact.
Currently in the third week of its two-month test buy, Exact has banners on Bolt's pages devoted to Prom '99 and to horoscopes, leading to a pop-up screen identical to an ad running in print. "The number of hits is already higher than we anticipated," he says.
Matthews has no problem with Bolt's freewheeling format: "We're not involved with what people say in chat areas. We're in control of our ad content and can do what we're trying to--market our product."
As Version 5 attests, Bolt didn't connect with teens out of the blue. Its history of revisions reads like a case study in development by trial-and-error. Bolt started out as a glitzy, designer-driven site that required downloading multimedia software, a drag to youthful surfers.
Version 2 dropped flash for substance, with original content from its staff, but Dan Pelson soon learned: "You can't stay on top of trends if you aren't a teen." So the next revision began offering extensive teen-created content.
By Version 4, the database was in place for customizing advertising messages, with a little tweaking still needed. Animated graphics touting content were being misinterpreted as ad placements and file-card-sized screens limited navigation. If Version 5 looks more like Yahoo! or Go, the portals of the moment, it's because that happens to be the current wisdom on the Web for attracting eyeballs.
Distinguishing Bolt from the start has been an emphasis on college-bound teens (also, not at all coincidentally, those most likely to succeed online). The site began promoting itself with strategic partner The Princeton Review, New York, the college test prep firm.
Since then, membership has largely grown by word-of-mouth, but the college section has remained a Bolt fixture, complete with online diaries of freshman turmoil and triumph. "Bolt is about the transition to college. A first-year student in college has a lot in common with high-schoolers," says Pelson, who argues for a redefinition of teen demographics. "The age cutoff should be 19 or 20, not 17. Why does Media Metrix have to divide it into the traditional age group of 13 to 17?"
In fact, in Media Metrix's recent surveys, more total teens 13-17 are visiting entertainment-oriented sites like nickelodeon.com and mtv.com, yet Bolt is among the leaders among teen-specific Web sites. Other sites aiming for the same segment include alloy.com, ParadeNet's react.com, teen.com, and the online version of Teen People, which shares Bolt's teen correspondent format. It appears only on America Online, which has about half of the teen online audience in its membership.
From the beginning, when Bolt was just another four-letter word, Pelson has had one goal: "to become the largest brand for teens on the Internet."
But Pelson doesn't want to stop there. "Eventually we want Bolt to be a top brand in all media," he says. Could a Bolt magazine and TV show also be what teens want?
Stay tuned.