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Web research tips & tools for tapping into kid culture

It's quick, efficient, and it can bring in results that are more cut-to-the-bone honest than a researcher can get from any other source. With all these positive ticks, conducting on-line research with kids and teens may seem to be an answer to the prayers of info-seekers everywhere. But it also has its own unique challenges, ranging from legal restrictions on gathering information from kids on the Internet to technical SNAFUs. Here's a look at how the experts overcome these hurdles to crack the kid connection code.
August 1, 2003

It’s quick, efficient, and it can bring in results that are more cut-to-the-bone honest than a researcher can get from any other source. With all these positive ticks, conducting on-line research with kids and teens may seem to be an answer to the prayers of info-seekers everywhere. But it also has its own unique challenges, ranging from legal restrictions on gathering information from kids on the Internet to technical SNAFUs. Here’s a look at how the experts overcome these hurdles to crack the kid connection code.

Researchers say the first step is to decide whether the Internet is indeed the best method for culling the type of info a client’s after. ‘We have to make sure the vehicle suits the purpose,’ says Martyn Richards, director of U.K.-based Opera Group. ‘There are certain things the Internet is better at than any other form of research.’ For example, products that live in cyberspace, such as video games, are best-suited to on-line testing. On the flip side of the coin, snack products – which require kids to see, touch, smell and taste them – may fare better in a focus group setting.

If a researcher determines that the web is the way to go, they must then pinpoint exactly what their client is trying to learn, what they plan to do with the information, and what demos are to be polled – all of which will help them craft the best possible survey. Then they must decide how to speak to the target audience.

‘One of the biggest challenges of kids research has always been communication,’ says Paul Metz, a VP at Chicago-based C&R Research Services. ‘The younger the kids, the harder it is for them to verbalize their thoughts. Until a certain age, like eight or 10, they’re not in the conceptual thinking phase.’

Surveys targeting young children need to be simple, visual and brief. Text is kept to a minimum, and questions that ask kids to rank how much they like or dislike something are avoided. ‘Their tests at school are their frame of reference,’ says John Geraci, VP of youth and education research at Rochester, New York’s Harris Interactive. ‘There’s one correct answer. It can’t be ambiguous.’

While there is often a sole answer (yes or no) to kids survey questions, researchers employ myriad tactics to extract those answers from their e-panels. If a client wants to reach kids under six, for example, C&R Research has a multimedia study that basically reads itself to its on-line panel using voice-over technology. Kid panelists can then point and click, and don’t need their parents to help them navigate the survey.

Meanwhile, Harris Interactive employs a ‘status bar’ to tell kids at various points how long they have left or how many questions remain. And Toledo, Ohio-based NFO WorldGroup asks the youngest kids in its surveys to click on a smiley face or a sad face for ‘do like’ or ‘don’t like.’ All kids are told to ask their parents if they need help with a study.

For many clients, the problem with gleaning info from kids under six is the doubt about whether they’re getting the kid’s opinion or the parent’s. To combat this, researchers often design studies that ask for both. For instance, a survey may test kids’ thoughts on an in-development cereal, and then ask parents how likely they are to buy it.

Parents definitely play a larger role in surveys targeting younger kids, but most researchers say they serve more as supervisors than influencers. ‘There’s nothing you can do with the data itself to account for parental influence; you just have to understand it in context,’ says Chris George, marketing manager of Northeast Marketing for NFO USA, a division of NFO WorldGroup.

Once kids reach the eight-year mark, they can typically handle a study as complicated as one designed for a 14-year-old. But even with older kids, researchers tend to use simple language aimed at about a third-grade reading level. They might use grammatically incorrect language (such as ‘really like,’ ‘really don’t like,’ or ‘kinda like’) that’s commonly heard on any playground, but they rarely go for outright slang.

When it comes to survey samples, some researchers say it’s best to have a specific, screened panel of kids to return to over and over again with different surveys. There’s a certain comfort level in relying on a readily available, pre-screened group accustomed to a company’s surveys. To that end, Harris Interactive has 500,000 youngsters to draw from (20,000 of those under 13), C&R has 12,000 participants ages six to 14, and NFO has a million households in its standing panels, with demographic info on all family members and kids who consistently answer their surveys.

Others, like Millward Brown, do Internet solicitations to get fresh groups of opinions for various studies. They feel that a consistently used group may be able to predict what types of questions will be asked after a while, which could bias results.

Of course, with most good surveys must come an equally good participation incentive. Product sampling and sweepstakes are common perks that come into play with kids on-line research. NFO gives points (good for cash, merchandise and entries in sweepstake draws) to participating households. Some participants receive cash incentives – which are sometimes more meaningful to a younger audience. The value of cash incentives or reward points ranges up to US$20 depending on the length and content of the survey. Millward Brown gives incentives to those over 18, but with younger participants, the incentive goes to the family.

Toronto, Canada-based Reactorz Research wants to see thoughtful answers from its panelists before forking over the cash. ‘It needs to be yes or no because…,’ says research director Kelly Lynne Ashton. ‘We want them to put some effort into it.’ The Reactorz kids collect points for survey participation, which they can redeem for cash, with a monthly cap of CAN$35 (US$26). ‘We want them to feel like it’s a job,’ says Ashton.

One of the key benefits of on-line research is that its medium puts kids at ease. ‘Kids aren’t that comfortable talking to strangers,’ says C&R’s Metz. ‘They might not be as open as they are on the computer, where they’re completely at home.’ Other researchers concur. Harris Interactive’s Geraci points to a study that asked if kids believe in God. There was a higher ‘yes’ rate on the phone than on-line, leading researchers to think that interviewer bias entered the picture when a subject was speaking directly to a polling agent.

According to Reactorz’ Ashton, the key to effective on-line research lies in the follow-up. It’s important for kids to know why the research is being conducted and what will happen with the results, she says. Reactorz lets its panelists know how their opinions helped shape a particular video game, marketing campaign or corporate spokescharacter via regular newsletters sent by e-mail and snail mail.

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