Media Analysis: Publishers follow teens online

Media owners and advertisers are tapping into online communities to reach young consumers, writes Nicola Clark.

News that BSkyB is buying editorial-based teen girls' website may surprise some industry analysts. Teenagers are not renowned for being voracious readers and much has been written about the declining sales and demise of much-loved teen magazines such as Smash Hits. But the burgeoning market for their online equivalents has received less attention.

A number of advertisers - from cosmetics brands to charities including the NSPCC - are quietly embracing the internet as a vital way to interact with a hard-to-reach young audience.

But while the web may yet prove to be the salvation of traditional magazine publishers trying to combat their titles' declining circulations, they have been slow to invest in online channels, according to Ben Wood, head of digital at Carat.

'The likes of Emap, NatMags and Hachette have all had a march stolen on them by the pure-play digital companies,' he says, pointing to the lack of a coherent digital strategy at major publishers - crediting IPC for having great websites for its men's titles, but little else.

Charlie Redmayne, managing director of Mykindaplace, one of the biggest websites in its sector, says the majority of big publishing houses burned by the dotcom crash are now seeking to reinvest in online. 'Advertising revenues are rising rapidly and I have no doubt that websites will overtake their print counterparts,' he says.

Hachette Filipacchi's Sugar, for example, relaunched its website last month. It is a key focus for the publisher this year, according to Julie Harris, general manager of Hachette's Women's Group, who adds that there is a clear demand from advertisers.

There is a downside, though. 'The frustration we suffer is that when the ABCs come out it's difficult to quantify the overall use of the brand because they don't include the web universe,' she says. It is early days, though, and the lion's share of Sugar's online advertising is still sold as a package with the magazine.

However, Alex Miller, who handles the COI's account at online planning agency i-level, says the era of online ads being added to a big print deal as a bonus are receding.

'Gone are the days where online is just an add-on. Websites are completely separate profit centres' he says.

Another area increasing in popularity is that of community sites, says Julian Smith, insight and research director at MEC Interaction. As a result, traditional magazine sites are creating their own community forums to compete with the likes of MySpace and Habbo Hotel. Hachette, for example, is looking to add a community element to its Sugar website.

Broadcasters of youth and children's channels are also making strides into the arena, with buyers pointing to Jetix, Cartoon Network and Trouble as key players to watch. The latter, which is owned by Flextech, recently lauched its own user-generated content network, Homegrown, which allows users to upload content and add their own profiles.

However, while technology such as video on demand and online communities offer huge potential, many traditional broadcasters seem baffled by them, says Celia Taylor, Trouble's channel controller. 'It feels almost like the birth of the internet again,' she adds. 'There is all this content and it is fresh, authentic, free and unmediated.'

But it may be more than just the novelty of the technology that is holding them back. Headlines focusing on the potential risks children can face when participating in online communities, including MySpace and BeBo, are making many brands hesitant to venture into their territory. A $30m lawsuit filed in Texas this summer by the mother of a 14-year-old girl who says she was sexually assaulted by a 19-year-old she met through MySpace has heightened this media attention.

Careful targeting

Wood says community sites will always be a potentially treacherous place for brands. 'The internet is an increasingly democratised space and brands need to think carefully about how they engage with young people,' he warns.

The NSPCC's recent 'Don't hide it' campaign, which encouraged sufferers of sexual abuse to speak out, demonstrates the huge potential of online communities for brands or organisations looking to connect with a hard-to-reach young audience. The activity, which ran on various community sites, involved events such as 'Speak out Sunday' and the creation of a virtual 'infobus' inside Habbo Hotel.

Stephanie Hughes, head of new media at the NSPCC, says that because the sites create such a strong sense of community, they can provide a supportive, yet confidential, environment where young people feel able to ask questions and listen. 'Unlike a (print) magazine, an online campaign is not static - it is constantly evolving,' she says.

The campaign attracted 440,000 unique users in a six-week period and is widely cited as a example of online communities' huge potential as places to successfully interact with young people.

Elsewhere, a recent campaign by the COI to encourage young people to use condoms appeared across a range of urban music sites, including those for pirate radio stations.

Looking ahead, online buyers say they are expanding the number and variety of sites they are using to reach young people. But it seems traditional publishers and broadcasters have a lot to learn if they are to tap into this growth.


Website Market
share (%)
1 46.41
2 Bebo 39.08
3 Habbo Hotel UK 2.62
4 Mykindaplace 0.13
5 0.12
6 More Magazine 0.05
7 0.03
8 CosmoGIRL! 0.03
9 0.02



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