Instead of relying on advertising to support its site, Bolt earns a living selling marketing data and analysis derived from communication among its young audience members to Fortune 500 companies like AT&T, Eastman Kodak, Ford Motor, Procter & Gamble, Sony and others.
Offering an online chat venue for every subject from sex to sodas, Bolt is able to interpret the views of those members who communicate anonymously, but apparently honestly, about issues that are important to them.
To verify its findings, Bolt uses an online focus group of teens selected on the basis of various psychographic categories, such as alpha teen, achiever, alternative, assimilator and awkward. Of those categories, the thoughts of alpha teens - defined as leaders who have the greatest influence on their peers - are the most highly sought-after.
"Alpha teens are very highly networked, and they tend to be the ones marketers want to reach," Bolt spokeswoman Elvin Can said.
If Bolt is reading its data correctly, the current generation of teens and young adults are already redefining content, that amorphous category of online information and entertainment that stretches from streaming media to hypertext.
"In a lot of ways, content will become context," Pelson said. "Teens are not using the Internet to consume traditional content. Theyre entertaining themselves by communicating with each other."
To get their conversations going, Bolt members pose questions for each other, such as: "Whats your favorite animal?" or "Do you stereotype people?" On the same page, they can take a survey comparing the Nissan Xterra to the Ford Escape, or tell AT&T how often they change the ring tones on their wireless phones and which ones are their favorites.
Rather than feeling exploited, Pelson said, the younger generation feels catered to. If true, that would represent a major gap in how the generations feel about market research.
"The people who are most fearful of targeted marketing tend to be adults," Pelson said. "They see that as a threat to their privacy. But teens are much more savvy than that. If someone can develop a product that suits their needs, they see that as a benefit and a utility."
Extrapolate that finding to a new medium such as interactive TV, and you can see why the idea of targeting individual homes for advertising holds promise. Already, AT&T is testing a "directed advertising" effort in Aurora, Colo., that groups 30,000 categorized viewers into marketing segments. Using SpotOn technology from ACTV, the system segments cable homes according to three categories: those with or without children; households with incomes under $50,000 annually; and households earning more than $75,000 per year.
While privacy advocates are appalled at the ability not only to target individual viewers for television commercials, but to gather information on those households as well, Pelson sees a teen market waiting to embrace the technology.
"Lets assume it takes two or three years before broadband and interactive television becomes widely available," he said. "It will take two or three years after that before marketing designed to fit that medium is really in place."
The oft-promised surge in interactive TV could come together over the next five years as expanding broadband, new digital technologies, antipiracy protections and a receptive market converge, according to Cahners In-Stat Group. In the panoply of Internet-enabled appliances, Internet TV will lead the market with a 115 percent growth rate, researchers say.
Until interactive TV warms up, the wireless world offers a certain path to the heart of the teen and young adult market, Pelson said. Many of Bolts audience members communicate through wireless devices and have developed their own shorthand for keeping messages brief.
Researchers at Cahners In-Stat say that kids and young adults ages 10 to 24 are likely to rank as the fastest-growing market for wireless voice and data services in the U.S. during the next several years, growing from 11 million in 2000 to 43 million in 2004.
Many companies trying to break into that market are following the giveaway model developed by Apple Computer and using schools as learning labs for new products.
Cybiko, for example, teamed up with Mitchell Middle School in Mitchell, S.D., providing an 8th-grade journalism and yearbook class with its wireless communications devices. Students can use Cybikos text editor applications to enter homework questions and then send them to their teacher.
Texas Instruments is learning about the young consumers who use its calculators in the classroom. The company recently developed a hybrid graphing calculator and personal digital assistant (PDA).
TI reads the youth market in large part through orders for certain kinds of chips, spokeswoman Gail Chandler said. Lately, TI has seen a greater need for chips that can be used for Internet audio.
One trend TI has observed in the youth market is a growing demand for "convergence devices," Chandler said. For example, one of TIs customers is about to release a digital camera that also provides Internet audio.
To capitalize on the market, companies should follow the lead of Cybiko, offering the fashion-conscious teens a variety of phone shapes, colors, faceplates and accessories, said Becky Dierks, director of Cahners In-Stats wireless services.
"To boost wireless data use among youths, carriers offer specially targeted content, including sites providing shopping, news, games, entertainment, education and other types of youth-oriented content," she said.
Naturally, North American carriers are watching the progress of Japanese telecommunications giant NTT DoCoMos first commercial third-generation service in support of mobile videophones. Dubbed FOMA (Freedom of Mobile Multimedia Access), the service could rapidly expand the services available to users.