Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Spawning of youth culture online

+ Children of the web - How the second-generation Internet is spawning a global youth culture--and what business can do to cash in.
Flying blind is the unavoidable consequence of coming to terms with today's most important demographic group: the tens of millions of digital elite who are in the vanguard of a fast-emerging global youth culture. Because of smartphones, blogs, instant messaging, Flickr, MySpace, Skype, YouTube, digg, and de.lic.ious, young people scattered all over are instantly aware of what's happening to others like them everywhere else. This highly influential group, many of whom are also well-heeled, is sharing ideas and information across borders and driving demand for consumer electronics, entertainment, autos, food, and fashion. Think of it as a virtual melting pot. As the population of the young and Web-savvy grows into the hundreds of millions, the pot is going to boil. "This kind of globalization is happening. It's still a young phenomenon, but it's growing fast, and it's going to take a lot of companies by surprise," says Soumitra Dutta, a professor at graduate management school INSEAD in France.

We're now at the busy crossroads where globalization meets Web 2.0. This presents both a challenge to the old ways of doing business and an opportunity to gain tremendous leverage via the right goods and services. To thrive in this era, companies will have to figure out how to engage young people from all over the world when they conceive of products and services. Businesses need their help in turning concepts into finished products and, especially, in marketing them. Another angle: Companies can follow the trail of blogs and social networking sites to find and recruit young employees all over the world.

The target customer for major brands is someone like Malini Agarwal, a 30-year-old radio deejay in Mumbai. After growing up all over as the daughter of an Indian diplomat, Agarwal settled down in the city and two years ago launched Friday Club, which organizes social gatherings and now has branches in four Indian cities plus Hong Kong, London, New York, and Toronto. The club's multinational members make plans, keep in touch, and share photos via social networking sites. "It's a global family," Agarwal says.

Or consider Brazilian Fabricio Zuardi, 27. He grew up 180 miles from São Paulo and found a job via the Web with Silicon Valley tech startup Ning Inc. Zuardi now lives in Palo Alto, Calif., in an apartment he located on craigslist.org. He has no traditional phone, preferring Skype Internet-based service. He doesn't own a TV. In his spare time he posts items on his blog or writes software that he contributes to open-source development projects. His taste in music is eclectic: Bob Dylan, Frank Sinatra, The Pogues. His friends are from all over, including Australia, Britain, Germany, and Slovenia. He has never met some of them face to face. "This is a generational shift," says Ning co-founder and Web browser pioneer Marc Andreessen. "A whole new generation grows up used to new technologies, and they're just different."

Zuardi and Agarwal represent the demise of the one-way globalization of American culture that reached its zenith in the 1970s and '80s. Then, U.S. marketers simply fed the worldwide appetite for Levi's, Coke, Madonna, and all things American. Now it's a two-way street. Americans are learning Bollywood dance steps at their local health clubs. M.I.A., an up-and-coming pop singer who has Sri Lankan roots and was brought up in London, intermingles hip-hop, reggae, and South Asian influences. And Japanese anime has swept the globe. One of the hottest anime properties is a Japanese TV series, Le Chevalier D'Eon, set in 18th century France. Within hours of each episode's airing in Japan, it's translated by fans into dozens of languages and posted illegally on the Web.

Addressing this vast market of globally dispersed young people will force companies to become new kinds of multinationals—plugged into the digital grid and quick to respond to shifts in demand that begin as tremors halfway around the world. Already a handful of companies have successfully navigated the digital Silk Road. Each has its own approach to a hard-to-nail-down demographic group. Tapping into the global video-game craze, DirecTV (DTV ) and international partners organized a professional league, Championship Gaming Series, and this month began broadcast tournaments on satellite TV. Meanwhile, Red Bull does little traditional TV advertising in the 100 countries where it sells energy drinks. More typical: a Web-based contest, Red Bull Art of the Can, where youngsters create sculptures out of Red Bull cans and submit photos of their handiwork. The prize: a trip for two to Switzerland.

This global-youth path will be full of pitfalls, too. Digital fads born in Japan could flop in Germany. And just because you can make a video and post it on YouTube doesn't mean you should. Japan's Hitachi Data Systems featured faded TV action hero Mr. T in an online video in a misguided attempt to promote its corporate data-storage technologies. Viewers hated it. Some observers wondered what Hitachi executives were smoking, selling such an obvious business-oriented product to a YouTube audience. "They should have put down the Web 2.0 pipe," quips David Parmet, principal of Web-marketing consultant Marketing Begins at Home.
In fact, a key to the global digital youth market is that, at least so far, the kids are in charge. They're used to being pitched products; many of them welcome it. But they're turned off by clumsy attempts to win their approval and pry away their money. In many cases, rather than being entertained by others, they'd prefer to do it themselves: Witness all those wacky videos on YouTube. This has major implications for how products and marketing programs are conceived, planned, and executed. "It's going to change business and culture," says Vicki Lynn, president of Satellite Events Enterprises, a company that stages online events. "The old hierarchical system is falling away. It's now about the power of the people."
One of the dilemmas of global youth marketing is that you can't control your message the way you could in the predigital days. Once a viral video or an online game is posted in cyberspace, it can be viewed by anybody in the world. David Rubin, the North America brand development director for Axe, recalls a time when he was getting a lot of pressure from headquarters to run an animated online game created by the British marketing team. It involved a young woman, a bed, and a feather. You can imagine the rest. He checked and discovered that, without him so much as lifting a finger, 40% of the traffic to the British Web site came from the U.S. "The idea isn't done somewhere in particular. It's just done. And it suddenly just happens. There are no borders. You can't control who sees it and comes to it."

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