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For teens, the future is mobile

Marketing firm Fuse talks to Sony, MTV Networks, Yahoo, and Nokia to find out what the future of technology will look like for the teens. The conclusion: It's mobile.

SAN FRANCISCO--Marketers convened here this week to figure out how best to reach teens on the Internet. The answer: It's all about the mobile phone.

Advertisers are clamoring to reach teens in digital environments because that's where they're spending much of their time--either online, with cell phones or playing video games. What's more, teens wield an estimated $200 billion annually in discretionary spending.

Fuse, a marketing agency based in Vermont, talked in recent weeks to senior technology executives from companies such as Sony, MTV Networks, Yahoo, and Nokia to find out what the future of technology will look like for the teen market.

Among the predictions: Mobile phones in the United States will surpass the popularity of desktops for teens. Only an estimated 20 percent of teens currently own a smartphone such as the iPhone, but mobile phone and content companies are counting on the idea that smartphone adoption will spread fast among teens in middle America and other areas.

"The iPhone is just the beginning of the all-in-one device. Uses of mobile devices will expand to include all kinds of bar code applications and prepaid debit card payment methods," said Bill Carter, a partner at Fuse, who presented the findings here at the YPulse 2008 National Mashup, a two-day conference on teens and technology.

That's likely why geographic ad targeting to teens via the phone is expected to explode in the coming years. Right now, mobile phone providers analyze an estimated 4 billion Internet Protocol addresses to provide street-level targeting to consumers. Companies like U.K.-based Blyk, for example, are reaching teens through the phone with ads and information on nearby nightspots. Teens sign up for the service.

"When you combine this new technology with teens giving their permission to market to them, the growth could be exponential," Carter said.

But, he said, mobile phone providers likely won't succeed as the entertainment leaders for the phone, despite their efforts to sell ringtones, games, and music. Other companies like Apple, Google, and Yahoo will be more effective at "side-loading" the cell phone with services.

Case in point: Most teens download music to their iPod that's been ripped from a friend's collection as opposed to bought from the iTunes music store. "There's a natural gravitation to get content on a device that's different than the one the manufacturer intended," he said.

As a corollary, he said that most teens will eventually buy subscription-based music services, much like the cable TV model. He predicted that Apple's iTunes will offer an unlimited monthly download service for music. Mobile phone companies, too, will launch music subscriptions on the smartphone.

Another prognostication: Other technology platforms will save, not kill TV networks, Carter said. The analog-to-digital conversion will make it possible for teens to watch live TV on portable devices. The technology will help the television networks target programming to specific audiences, and that will buoy the cost of advertising, he said.

"The device is inconsequential compared to the content," he said.