Cool-hunters hit the Web jungle

When a marketing company builds a Web community to observe the elusive hipster teen, is it girl empowerment or exploitation?


Janelle Brown
May 13, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

Will Smith is the bomb right now, but Leonardo DiCaprio is on the way out. Anyone from "Dawson's Creek" is hot, hot, hot. So are butterfly hair clips, the preppy look and Abercrombie & Fitch. But Tommy girls better watch out. As a 15-year-old girl from Portland lays it out, "Tommy Hilfiger is going out of style FAST!"

This information may seem frivolous, but it's a hot commodity. Just ask SmartGirl Internette, the online "consumer guide" and ad-free community for teen girls that generated this data. The SmartGirl site doesn't just cater to girls -- it does double duty as a trend-research firm, attempting to capitalize on the demand for market research about the teen demographic.

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SmartGirl is one of a growing number of companies aiming to move the trend-research industry online. But because it targets pubescent girls, SmartGirl's activities raise ethical questions.

"Youth trend research is growing, and clearly the Net gives us an even better entry point because so many young people are computer literate," says Diane Bowers, president of the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, which lobbies to "protect the integrity of marketing" in the face of privacy-protecting legislation. "Online market research is growing by leaps and bounds; it's also growing with a lot of concerns that the limitations of that methodology should be acknowledged."

The offices of SmartGirl Internette, in the SoHo district of Manhattan, are plastered with girlish paraphernalia. Posters of the latest pro-girl Barbie campaign hang on the walls. Dog-eared teen magazines are piled on the coffee table. Above the desk of company founder Isabel Walcott, a photo of girls playing soccer hangs beside a newspaper clipping announcing, "Sleep -- the New Status Symbol."

Walcott, in a black minidress, her blond hair in a perky ponytail, sees her Web site and research as a pro-girl cause. She and her four employees describe the site as an open forum and community for teens to express themselves. "Our girls feel really empowered," she enthuses. "They've told us that. Here's the one place in their lives where what they have to say really does matter; they love the fact that their opinion is getting showcased for the world to see."

SmartGirl isn't much to look at, with girlish motifs of stars, hearts and kisses, glaring spelling errors and a rudimentary design that looks firmly stuck in 1995. But that doesn't seem to matter to the girls who inhabit the site. The pages are filled with commentary from the thousands who visit every day. All of the content, in fact, is written by site members. It consists mostly of reviews of CDs, books and movies (including sweetly sincere deconstructions of the outfits in each scene of "Clueless"); commentary about teenage concerns such as unrequited crushes; relationship advice columns; and bulletin boards heavy with posts about divorce and snobbish high-school cliques. All submissions are unpaid, but are edited and posted by a team of part-time editors and staffers.

Significantly, at least in Walcott's view, there are no ads. If her plan works, there never will be.

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Walcott considers the reviews the most important element of the site. She describes them as a consumer guide written by teens for teens. Hence, the SmartGirl slogan, "Smart girls decide for themselves." Walcott plans to push e-commerce heavily in those sections. "The girls are looking at all the reviews as a way to find out what to buy," she says. "They come to us for objective information about products; it's a short step to get them to buy it from us rather than going to the mall."

For now, though, the SmartGirl enterprise is supported primarily by another section of the site: Speak Out, brimming with surveys about online shopping, celebrity crushes, reproductive health and more. Here, girls answer multiple-choice questions and opine to their hearts' content in open response areas. Their teenage sentiments are collected, cross-referenced and sold to SmartGirl clients or sent out in press releases for promotional purposes. (Walcott often serves as a kind of teen spokeswoman, popping up on radio shows to explain what, for example, young girls think about Valentine's candy or Take Our Daughters to Work Day.)

SmartGirl also undertakes customized research and surveys for clients such as NBC and youth fashion magazine YM. For a shoe company client, SmartGirl recently surveyed its girls about what kind of footwear ads would appeal to them. It also launched a line of subscription reports recently, including the Celebrity Report (chronicling the rising or waning popularity of teen idols) and the Trend Report (focusing on the vagaries of teen clothing and lifestyle).

SmartGirl's Celebrity Report, for example, is a dense, analytical, 30-page report peppered with charts, graphs, appendices and tables tracking the "cool" and "hunk" factor of a variety of stars familiar to the teen set. You'd never imagine that the art of charting celebrity cool would be so mathematical, but apparently it is, and that math is valued at $10,000 a year for six reports. (The shorter, monthly Trend Report goes for $2,000 a year.)

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SmartGirl is far from the first company to measure and sell teen trend data. Teens are a highly coveted audience -- proto-consumers whose purchasing habits and brand identification are still soft enough to shape. As Kevin Mabley, director of research at online market research firm Cyber Dialogue, puts it, the teen years are "a great point to reach people at the very beginning of their lifetime value as a customer." And since teens are characteristically fickle in their pursuit of cool, marketers are eager for any data they can get.

A whole industry of trend-research firms has evolved to both measure and influence what's popular. If chunky-heeled platform sneakers are the cool fad then you better not, God forbid, be pushing flat-soled sandals. To avoid such costly faux pas, marketers have turned to a burgeoning group of trend-analysis companies, sometimes called cool-hunters, trumpeted in publications ranging from the New Yorker to the Los Angeles Times.

SmartGirl is one of the first to adapt this methodology to the online world, and to do it with an already-assembled teen audience to boot. But it won't be long before the thousands of offline trend-reporting companies that conduct in-person focus groups and phone surveys turn to the Net to track what's hip and what's not. After all, response rates for traditional forms of market research are down -- phone survey response rates declined 6 percent in 1998, according to the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research -- while online surveys and focus groups hold the promise of being cheap and easy to perform.

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They are not without weaknesses, however. The industry has concerns about how to properly weight online survey results, given that computer users still aren't representative of the population at large. And it must decide how to tackle the problem of verifying demographic information from an online participant.

"The future of online market research is going to be huge, but you have to get around specific problems," says Barbara Coulon, director of trends at the offline cool-hunting company Youth Intelligence. "We pride ourselves on getting more in-depth responses than you might get online, and knowing who we are talking to. We haven't really found a way of recruiting people off the Internet and knowing who they are." The industry is exploring Net research, but has yet to hit on the right methodology, she says.

The two biggest areas of concern for online teen market research, says Bowers of the Council for Marketing and Opinion Research, are those that have been carried over from the traditional market research code of ethics: parental control and privacy. With the proliferation of inexperienced online research start-ups, these issues could be particularly problematic, she says. "It's the people who are out there without any credentials that the research industry is concerned about -- they may think they know what they are doing but they may not [follow] the research parameters and professional ethics."

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Collecting information that would let someone personally identify survey participants is a violation of the market research code of ethics and is in some circumstances illegal. Last fall, Congress passed the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (or COPPA) prohibiting the collection of this kind of information from children under 13.

SmartGirl doesn't collect personal identification information from the teens it polls; Walcott is quick to emphasize that the surveys don't ask for e-mail addresses, just first names (or pseudonyms) and ages. But this is a recent change -- Walcott used to collect the names and e-mail addresses of her constituents. She says she stopped when she realized that this practice was problematic. The watchdog group Center for Media Education says this change only took place after SmartGirl was used as an example of misguided online data collection during the COPPA hearings; Walcott denies this and says the center has long misunderstood SmartGirl's practices.

Another weighty issue is disclosure. When a girl visits SmartGirl, does she know that her opinions are being collected for market research? Should she be told exactly what the data she provides is to be used for? Katharina Kopp, a senior policy analyst at the Center for Media Education, points out, "survey sites often don't always disclose fully how this information will be used ... They need to be more up front about the implications so that a teenager can really have an informed consent about what they do."

SmartGirl, for example, does not disclose that the site does market research -- except in the survey section. There, in small type and vague terms, the page explains, "We ask you what girls want so companies can make better stuff for you and really meet your needs. We want your opinion, and we hope to make money from listening to it. If we can make money without advertising, we can keep our 100 percent girl-powered site where every opinion you see on SmartGirl is written by a real girl or young woman." At the bottom of the long page is a link to SmartGirl's privacy policy.

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Walcott asserts that the site is up front about its mission -- although it gives a murky description of who will ultimately use the data and for what purposes. She says the reason the site's market research services are not mentioned on the front door is because she doesn't want stray visitors who might land on the site to pretend they're teenage girls and participate in the surveys.

There is also the tricky question of parental consent -- should teens be required to get permission from their parents every time they fill out a survey? Cyber Dialogue -- which was founded as a sister company to Yankelovich Partners (known for its groundbreaking youth trend reports with Nickelodeon) and worked extensively with teen-oriented surveys -- seems to think so. Unlike SmartGirl, Cyber Dialogue requires specific parental permission before teens can fill out a survey; it also pays them a token fee as incentive -- something that SmartGirl, in turn, frowns upon as a bribe.

"You do need to get parental permission for anyone under the age of 16 to take part in a survey. To be a best-of-breed researcher you need to respect the issues of speaking to teens online," says Mabley. "A parent is really the one who should make a decision about giving that privilege or not; we don't want to be the ones who decide what's in their interest."

Walcott, however, defends SmartGirl's decision to let girls make their own decisions about filling out surveys. The law requires only parental consent, she says, when collecting personally identifiable information.

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Besides, says Walcott, parents have responded favorably to a place without ads on the Web, where their children are safe from marketing pitches. "The thing we hear most often from parents and teachers is, 'Thank God there is a place on the Net that doesn't have ads,'" she says.

The irony, of course, is that the data that SmartGirl collects instead is used to build better ads elsewhere. As Kopp of the Center for Media Education argues, companies will use the survey results "to market to teenagers and kids in a much more sophisticated way -- it makes them more vulnerable because the company has that information and can prey on insecurities or fears."

In the end, though, survival on the Web seems to mean subjecting visitors to the lesser of two evils: surveys and market research or advertisements and product pitches. Walcott is emphatic that girls prefer the surveys. After all, she says, girls who completed surveys on the site -- admittedly a self-selected group -- said they would rather have more surveys than ads.

"The girls understand that there is a give and take," she says. "Somehow we need to fund this Web site -- it's entertainment for the girls. They all know that in the end these things cost money."

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Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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