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The New Consumer: A Teen's Eye View of Search Engines, Online Purchasing & Travel

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Teens hate email, love instant message; favor Google and the majority feel they have a direct influence over the family's buying cycle for travel and consumer goods...a recent focus group uncovers what this means to advertisers.

"A Couple of Chicks" invited 125 High School Hospitality Tourism Students to be part of a focus group on Search Engines, Communication trends and Travel. Watching my own daughter who is almost 15, it is becoming apparent that the next generation of consumers are adopting distinct opinions and habits early on. I have been constantly observing her behavior when it comes to the effect of online marketing and her impressions of the travel industry and the Internet as a source for research and purchase.

Given this group of individuals is not far off from being the next giant consumer base, I wondered if her peers had some of the same sentiments as she did regarding this topic.

If you have a teen running around your house, you will intuitively agree with the opening statements along with the remainder of the results presented here. However even those of you with teens may be surprised, as I was, with some of the answers as we take a look at a "teen's view" of the internet, and what it means to the future of marketing. The focus group of High School students took an identical survey covering topics related to the travel search process over the course of 5 class periods with the aid of www.surveymonkey.com. Survey Monkey calculated the results accurately in an unbiased way. After the survey each group was presented with an inside look at a searchers behavior as we interactively examined a sample search process that we call "Planning a Family Vacation Exposed!" Stay tuned for that article expose coming soon!

At 58%, the majority of the participants from this High School were 16 year old males with the remaining 41% females. Participants ranged in age from 14-18. Our research begins with how many computers in their homes had online internet access. (I have had the discussion with many people that had the impression that my home housed more computers than the average, given my chosen profession) Interestingly the results showed I was not an anomaly, kids today are connected fast, and command ownership over multiple computers.

Here comes the real meat, some of you who are scanning this might miss the good stuff, so read on because this gets good!

Just over 89% stated their computers were on a high speed broadband connection. Students who have 1 or 2 online computers tied at 34% each, with 19.5% owning 3 and an incredible 12% housing more than 3 Internet connected computers. "We need our own" a number of kids responded, "Our parents have their own and there is one for the kids." Teens with multiple siblings echoed those sentiments stating the same reason for multiple Computers. Wireless networks were another reason why having multiple computers is easier and cheaper than ever before.

When questioned if the wireless networks had a security key, most teens did not know. A few savvy Gen Y's knew that they had security keys, as their families had already been victims of identity theft with intruders hacking into their network. Security seemed to be a topic they hungered for more information about, as they readily admitted there is no one speaking to them directly regarding security issues over the internet.

When it comes to Search Engines, Google wins the race with Gen Y hands down, with a remarkable 85% claiming it as their favorite search engine, with Yahoo at 10% coming in second, and MSN securing only 4.5% of the territory. However the results were almost reverse when verifying what was the most commonly used home page. Yahoo was a more engaging home page for teens, as it allows them to customize their own content, with horoscopes, sports scores and news on games and movies. They readily admit that even though Yahoo has a search bar, they go to www.google.com when they want to search for something.

Think the younger generation is impatient when they are searching? A surprising 53% said they go to as many pages as they need until they find the answer, with only 18% sticking to the first page. With 79% of the teens stating they have never clicked on a sponsored ad, they told me that most of what they see on the first page is some sort of advertising. Hard for me to believe but they have figured out the deeper you dig, the closer to the "truth" you get! At least that is what they believe as 46% responded that they felt that most of the results returned, whether paid or natural, were some form of advertising.

"When I am not with my friends we talk over Instant Messenger," was a statement I overheard numerous times during the day. With 65% of the students participating said they always use IM to communicate and 28% said they use it sometimes, only 5 % of the focus group said they never used IM. "I love IM!" claimed one 15 year old girl, "You get instant responses where email takes too long, it's more like I am just talking to my friends." You parents are most likely all too familiar with the communication method of choice for this generation!

"IM is better than 3-way calling," another boy volunteered, "I've had as many as 10 conversations going at once! It's also a great way to meet new people." The students were equally split percentage wise at having 1 or 2 email addresses but claimed how much they hated spam. With hotmail being the number one choice of teen email, they told me how they quickly check their email then open up IM to see who is on. It has become the gathering place for Gen Y to hang out after school.

What about cell phones? An overwhelmingly 70% own a cell phone, however only 44% said they use Text Message sometimes, where only 21% of the group always used it. Text messaging seemed to be favored by girls over boys, where a number of them claimed to have the ability to text message without looking. "We do it in class all the time," stated one of girls age 14, "I can hold my phone under my desk and send a message without looking at the keys." In looking at multiple travel search related questions on the survey, Expedia has clearly done the best job of building their brand with Gen Y. Over 56% said their families had booked a vacation on Expedia with Hotels.com coming in second at 28%. Identical statistics were cited when asked if they had ever visited any Travel Websites. From a marketing perspective, teens were not at all familiar with Travelocity, Priceline, Hotwire or even the ability to book travel on Brand sites. In fact over 73% recorded they did not have a favorite hotel brand.

What does this mean to the present and future of online advertising for travel and tourism?

66% of the teens claim they have an influence over where their family travels, stating price and location equally as determining factors. One of the teachers revealed the following insight. "I have the students build their dream vacation on Expedia. What they find out is that it is not as easy as it sounds. When I ask them to write down the phone number of the hotel, they are surprised when they can't find it. Most of them never realized if you went to the hotel direct, Expedia wouldn't make any money."

So what will happen when teens start to book their own travel, not to mention their influence on travel purchases now? Brand sites were their lowest choice at 9%, with Search and Third Party Intermediaries tying at slightly below a third. What was the clear winner in the category? Word of Mouth. This follows the trend we are currently seeing in the current generations of travelers. The popularity of www.tripadvisor.com and other online review portals seemed to hold more credence than traditional advertising or content.

How will online marketing change as we begin to adapt to the needs of this new generation? Already they are bonafide consumers with 58% of the focus group admitting they have already made their own purchases online with almost 40% having made a purchase on EBay!

My recommendations on how to use this information; Brands and Third Parties have a long way to go to begin to build a loyalty with this base of future consumers. When was the last time you saw anything directly marketed to this demographic by either of the above? That being said, it is clear that a new form of marketing must be embraced. Now that Pay per Click and eblasts are perceived as "traditional marketing" to Gen Y, Interactive Marketing will be the direction to go moving forward.

Gen Y and their predecessors Gen X, want to be engaged, want to customize their content and are still willing to have direct advertising; but only if it is relevant, and they have chosen to have it.

These trends are currently being discussed by top industry leaders who are saying things like; "Consumers today are armed with iPods, TiVo machines, Blackberries, search engines, broadband connections and other digital technologies, and they have gained unprecedented control over their media, content and purchasing options. As a result, marketers are facing an increasingly complex web of challenges," says Geoff Ramsey, CEO, www.eMarketer.com .

Gary Stein, senior analyst for Jupiter Research recently presented an address on "Effective Internet Marketing in a Global Market Place." Stein noted that "8 out of 10 potential customers will go to sources outside their control, such as blogs and online reviews, and smart marketers need to make sure they know what is being said."

Does this make Content Syndication and Blogs the next generation of marketing tools? What it really boils down to is not the method of how the message gets there, but is the trigger that determines the purchase. Closely working with your web analytic partner to keep current with you customer buying cycle will clearly provide you the answers as to what differentiates the research stage from a transaction, and how to use that intelligence to more effectively target this future generation of consumers, and stay attuned to changes in the current one.

###

"A Couple of Chicks Distribution Marketing" would like to thank the students and teachers of Our Lady of Mt Carmel Secondary School in Mississauga Ontario, for their participation in the survey and focus group. All information in this article was reproduced with the permission of those participating. Mt Carmel has invited "A Couple of Chicks" to return in 2006 to perform a similar study with the next semester's students.

About the author:

Patricia Brusha and Alicia Whalen are the co-founder's of www.acoupleofchicks.com , a newly "hatched" Internet Marketing, Distribution & Revenue Measurement Company. A Couple of Chicks E-Distribution Marketing specializes in using Creative, on-line Distribution tactics and tracking Technology to help you reach your customers. Look for part two of this article series, which will explore the relevancy of understanding the search process in

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