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Marketers learning lessons about reaching kids in school

When school bells across the U.S. sound this September, marking the beginning of another school year, it won't just be students lining up at the gate. Marketers, who for years have been reaching kids at home, at the mall and just...
August 1, 2000

When school bells across the U.S. sound this September, marking the beginning of another school year, it won’t just be students lining up at the gate. Marketers, who for years have been reaching kids at home, at the mall and just about every other place they congregate, are putting more and more effort into gaining access to this final frontier. But while opportunities abound, U.S. schools are proving to be a very demanding venue, requiring innovative new programs and approaches. In this arena, the hard sell will leave you out in the cold. Instead, educational partnerships and the ability to provide proven educational support to teachers are the keys to success.

In that light, Partners in Brainstorms, a Phoenix, Arizona-based research and marketing firm specializing in youth and educational programs, developed voluntary guidelines for in-school promotions. PIB worked closely with both marketers and educators, in addition to government agencies and associations that develop curriculum standards, to come up with the suggestions. Debra Pryor, president and CEO of PIB, comments that ‘many of today’s corporately funded materials never reach the classroom,’ and so implements the PIB guidelines on behalf of her clients in order to improve the acceptance rates of their in-school products.

Pryor’s 10 guidelines require in-school materials to be accurate, objective, reusable and adaptable, suggesting that the message should be as noncommercial as possible. Business names and logos should be less prominent than the educational message, the guidelines say, with marketers really only using them to provide contact information or as a source for the materials.

Easton, Connecticut-based Youth Marketing International, a similar company to PIB, specializes in strategies for reaching children in schools, helping marketers gain access through comprehensive educational programs for teachers. ‘We have found over the years that it’s the classroom teachers, generally, who determine with these kinds of ancillary materials what he or she is going to use in the classroom,’ says Roberta Nusim, YMI president. ‘Since real-world materials were so motivational for kids I wondered why companies weren’t sending it out. I had often used television programs or cereal boxes in my classroom as a way of motivating the kids, from there going on to the standard curriculum.’

YMI’s latest initiative, ‘Smart Cookies Don’t Burn,’ teaches the importance of sun protection and sunscreen to elementary school children and their families. ‘The kids actually do experiments. They figure out how long it takes to turn a grape into a raisin and in turn learn about the dangers of the sun,’ Nusim explains. In the process, the program will promote Z-cote, a zinc-oxide ointment made by BASF that can be added as a sun block ingredient to different sunscreens. ‘Smart Cookies Don’t Burn’ is scheduled to roll out this school year, but at press time Nusim had yet to decide whether she’ll wait for the sunny weather next spring or debut the project in September. It was tested in 10,000 schools across the U.S. last school year, reaching 1.8 million elementary school children. This year, YMI plans to hit every elementary school across the U.S. (approximately 70,000), with an eye on reaching just over 13 million children.

Another project from YMI gains access to classrooms by addressing a specific concern voiced by teachers. Each year, educators report that students’ reading levels drop by September because they haven’t done much reading over the summer. In response, YMI helped create a Barnes and Noble ‘Dig into Books’ summer reading program for elementary students, which just completed its fourth year. This program provides motivation for the kids to read over their break, in addition to directing traffic to B&N stores. Nusim won’t disclose the budgets for individual programs, but says that over the last 12 months, they have spanned a wide range-from US$30,000 to US$850,000.

Where PIB and YMI strive to get information into the classroom, Seattle, Washington-based N2H2 is working to keep it out. An Internet infrastructure company, N2H2 provides schools with its Bess Internet Filtering Service, a system designed to monitor materials coming through Internet navigating systems and filter out inappropriate elements. It filters access for around 12 million kids in nine countries.

N2H2′s newest initiative is a revamped version of its Searchopolis portal, likely to be released sometime this month. The educational search engine has been upgraded so that searching functions can now be prioritized based on specific, more ‘expert’ educational categories and by grade level.

While Searchopolis is software offered for free, the Bess Internet Filtering Service requires a set-up charge and monthly subscriber fees. ‘But,’ explains Peter Nickerson, chairman, president and CEO of N2H2, ‘there were a lot of schools out there that had not put in budgets for Internet filtering or that were just struggling with dollars.’ To address the lack of funding, N2H2 offers a choice. ‘We can provide our services to you on a fee-for-service basis,’ Nickerson explains, or ‘we’ll provide the subscription services for free in return for the ability to put advertising on our resource bar. Some schools don’t want it [advertising], and that’s a legitimate perspective. But there are other schools that are not offended by it. Kids are pretty sophisticated as long as you don’t have intrusive advertising popping up all the time.’ The free service has been adopted by 60% to 70% of N2H2′s users.

Over at venerable in-school marketer Scholastic, the last 12 years of an 80-year history have involved marketing corporately sponsored materials to schools, creating a presence and branding. Scholastic’s most recent program extends Energizer’s previously existing fire safety message, ‘Change your clock, change your battery,’ with a promo tied to Scholastic’s The Magic School Bus. The program will be delivered to 75,000 classrooms in the U.S., shipping in September for use in October-Fire Safety Month. The program includes in-class fire safety activities and take-home materials, so that kids in grades one through three can apply the information at home as well. The program (endorsed by Danny Glover) is also rolling out to stores via a commercial Magic School Bus/Energizer promotion, says Scholastic’s executive director of marketing Scott Fuller. In-store materials and a national FSI in October will support a Magic School Bus fire safety book giveaway with two proofs of purchase for Energizer batteries.

In determining who Scholastic partners with, VP and group publisher of Scholastic Marketing Partners Steve Palm says it is still the program’s content that takes priority. ‘If the program is solid and has real educational value for the teacher as well as the students, I think there’s arguably less said about the partners.’

New York-based Primedia’s Channel One has learned that with an increasingly savvy children’s market, advertisers have to be careful that they don’t become too in-your-face. In the past, the company has been targeted by children’s advocacy group Commercial Alert, a network of educators and professionals opposing ‘the excesses of commercialism, advertising and marketing,’ especially in schools. Commercial Alert’s chief complaint concerns the two minutes of advertising accompanying Channel One’s 10-minute daily classroom news show. Through a letter-writing campaign directed at senators, government funding bodies and Channel One’s promotional partners, the advocacy group has argued that the network effectively forces advertising on the seven million kids and teens who see the show each day.

Given such opposition, less hype with a softer edge is the way to go, says Fred Sawabini, president of Channel One, and many of the changes set for the new school year will reflect that. Such initiatives include new anchors, some more events, possibly some live programming-all of which, Sawabini stresses, are purely in the development stage.

Still, Doug Milles, VP of marketing, defends the service: ‘We don’t just put up signage.’ Instead, he says, the network offers kids a news medium in their own language dealing with hard, teen-oriented issues-with a careful eye on the messages relayed by the advertising. ‘What we have to remember,’ Milles says, ‘is that we are invited guests in the schools. The day we forget that, we will be kicked out.’

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