Interfaces offer next-gen on-line kid branding potential

With banner advertising's failure to sway or influence kid surfers, interactivity is increasingly being held up as the key to successful youth-targeted marketing and promotional initiatives on the Internet. Armed with this market intelligence, entertainment companies with kid-skewing properties are turning...
January 1, 2001

With banner advertising’s failure to sway or influence kid surfers, interactivity is increasingly being held up as the key to successful youth-targeted marketing and promotional initiatives on the Internet. Armed with this market intelligence, entertainment companies with kid-skewing properties are turning to digital interfaces to give their brands a more engaging on-line presence.

One webco that has recently jumped into this area of the kids biz is New Jersey-based ScreenFriends, which designs voice-enriched interactive characters that can verbally communicate with kid and teen computer users. Samantha Seventeen, a 2-D animated ScreenFriend commissioned by Seventeen magazine for launch on the publication’s website last November, illustrates how this technology speaks to kids and how it can be used as a pervasive on-line and off-line marketing tool.

Designed to fit easily into kids’ multitasking lifestyles, Samantha responds to voice commands and primarily serves as a Net navigator, but she can also be downloaded onto a user’s desktop and put to work opening programs and documents. ‘With ScreenFriends, you don’t have to be sitting in front of the computer all the time,’ says CEO Greg Santore. ‘You can be watching TV or whatever-as long as you’re within hearing reach.’

In addition to the branding potential of having your character in kids’ faces whenever they log-on to the computer, ScreenFriends can also be programmed to let their users know about upcoming events and product launches planned by the client, as well as on-line retail promos run by affiliate advertisers. For example, if a user told Samantha to go shopping for shoes, she might pipe up about a US$10 discount that Candie’s is offering. ‘Even though the distribution may not be as broad as running a banner ad, it’s more focused because the customer is already interested in buying shoes,’ explains Santore.

This kind of finite targeting convinced more than 250 advertisers to sign up for the Samantha Seventeen program. The two companies split ad revenues based on how the clients are brought in, with ScreenFriends going after general affiliates and Seventeen negotiating with exclusive sponsors and advertisers that will be spotlighted in specific merch categories. However Santore is very conscious that too many commercial soundbytes will turn kids off. ‘The main rule is that you don’t want to annoy the user,’ he says. ‘We could drop a promotion into the mix every hour, but kids would stop paying attention to it-just like they have with banner ads.’

The revenues brought in by Samantha’s advertisers, which include Amazon and Dell, help offset the roughly US$200,000 that Seventeen paid ScreenFriends to create the character and update her promotions for a year.

To get girls interested in Samantha’s creation early on, Seventeen and ScreenFriends let the magazine’s readers define the character’s look and personality via six polls that had average responses of more than 2,000 girls. The respondents voted that Samantha should: look like Leslie Bibb from WB series Popular, behave like Rachel on Friends, and dress like fashion queen Gwyneth Paltrow. They also suggested she exhibit teen-like character quirks like taking breaks to sip a latte and flip her hair, and occasionally pausing to answer her ringing cell phone.

So far, the campaign for getting girls involved has paid off. Two weeks after Samantha’s launch as webcast host of Seventeen’s New Star Designer Showcase 2000, more than 7,000 teen users had downloaded the character.

According to Santore, the next step will be to make 3-D characters, and to start working on constructing an interface that can run on PDAs and cell phones.

The technology will also spin out into the home entertainment category later this month, when a full lineup of characters originally created for last summer’s theatrical debut of Universal’s The Adventures of Rocky & Bullwinkle are featured on the DVD release of the film. ‘This initiative offers added value to consumers who’ve purchased the title, but it’s also a great way for clients to take the consumer back to their studio website,’ says Santore.

Comet Systems’ customizable desktop cursor is another interface that’s attracted the attention of kid entertainment players like Universal, Sony Pictures Family Entertainment and United Media. Clients pay a few thousand dollars to have Comet Systems design a licensed cursor, which, at the simplest level, is added to the client’s website to make navigation of that site more fun. But the cursor is also featured on My Comet Cursor, a downloadable library of more than 3,000 licensed and non-licensed desktop cursors that’s accessed by approximately three million new users a month (63 million in total). ‘About 90% of people who access My Comet Cursor change their cursor once and then surf with it,’ says Ben Austin, Comet Systems director of marketing. ‘What this means for companies with entertainment properties is that people are surfing with your image in their face day in and day out. Even when they’re not on the web, they’re still getting the branding.’

Lastly, the cursor can be accessed by the 350,000 fan site builders who visit affiliate site CometZone in search of approved branded cursors to jazz up their sites. As kids are huge aficionados of fan sites, this could result in millions more impressions.

With such a big reach, it’s not surprising that studios are using the cursor technology to build prelaunch interest in screened fare. Universal debuted a Casper cursor during the holidays to tie in with the DTV release of Casper’s Haunted Christmas, and last September, Sony Pictures Family Entertainment commissioned Comet Systems to come up with Jackie Chan Adventures cast cursors when the show launched on Kids’ WB! in the U.S. The cursors helped the site average several hundred thousand hits a week, says SPFE’s VP of marketing David Palmer, making it the number-one Sony site for more than eight weeks.

However, ‘most clients are using the cursors as a way to keep kids engaged with a property after the hype around the latest product dies down,’ says Austin. United Media, for example, commissioned licensed cursors for all of the Peanuts characters because their classic appeal makes them perennially popular with kid and adult surfers alike.

Austin says one of the things that sets Comet Cursors apart from other icon-based on-line services is that they can be downloaded in under 20 seconds, even on a dial-up connection. ‘A new Jupiter Communications study reported that even a year from now, probably 86% of people will still be using dial-up, so we needed to find a way to make it work for the vast majority of kids.’

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