What should the online PR industry be learning about the behaviour of young people online?

If the past couple of years have taught the PR industry one thing, that lesson has been to keep looking ahead and not get too comfortable with our communications space.

In five years’ time, today’s teenagers will be our next generation of adult consumers who we need to connect with, and their online behaviour is only going to get more sophisticated and immersive. Now is the time to be getting down with the kids – not in five years’ time!

Throughout the course of my career I’ve spent a fair amount of time investigating the teen community online – at ZDNet I was involved in a huge editorial campaign addressing the safety and privacy risks of young people online, and in my role at Habbo Hotel UK I played an intrinsic part within the community and had ample opportunity to understand the factors that influence the online behaviour of this age group.

The stats are worth looking at. While real-life social networks such as Facebook are massive among the 18-25 age group in the UK, well over half of British users of the site are over 25 and 38.2 per cent are over 35 (Hitwise). The 13-17 age group makes up a mere 13 per cent of Facebook users in the UK.

Compare this to virtual world Habbo Hotel who now claims 170 million users in 11 countries, and notches up an average 2 hours 16 minutes each month per user (Nielsen). Among the target 10-15 year old group, three million new characters are created every month.

Other virtual worlds targeted at the youth demographic accommodate similarly massive membership. Club Penguin owned by Disney is reported to have 22 million registered accounts, and Barbie Girls developed by Mattel currently has 17 million registered accounts.

What this shows us is that young people within Europe are using virtual worlds on a regular basis, in preference to real-life social networks – they are seeking a ‘second’ life.

To quote Brian Solis from his book ‘Engage’: “As existing, younger, demographics of virtual worlds mature, their conditioning and expectations for sophisticated and immersive interaction won’t dwindle. Social networks that cater to older demographics may soon need to integrate virtual features and experiences in order to attract new users over time.”

For those of us working in online PR, now is the time to be understanding how the younger generation engage within these virtual worlds, as while these users will grow and mature and their interests change, the behavioural patterns that they’re forming now will be likely to stick with them.

A worthwhile read on this subject is an article by Jackie Marsh from the University of Sheffield entitled: “Young Children’s Play in Online Virtual Worlds”, which offers a few useful learning points.

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