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Club Hopping – Marketers navigate the world of kids social networking

With social networking sites like MySpace drawing upwards of 100 million users worldwide, it's no wonder marketers are increasingly looking to these outlets to mount sticky, viral campaigns. In fact, by the time we ring in 2007, U.S. marketers will have spent an estimated US$280 million to advertise on social networking sites. And according to eMarketer, a New York-based new media market research firm, that number will shoot up to US$1.86 billion by 2010. But before running off to create similar plans for the kids social networking space, kids marketers are going to have to do some homework.
December 1, 2006

With social networking sites like MySpace drawing upwards of 100 million users worldwide, it’s no wonder marketers are increasingly looking to these outlets to mount sticky, viral campaigns. In fact, by the time we ring in 2007, U.S. marketers will have spent an estimated US$280 million to advertise on social networking sites. And according to eMarketer, a New York-based new media market research firm, that number will shoot up to US$1.86 billion by 2010. But before running off to create similar plans for the kids social networking space, kids marketers are going to have to do some homework.

eMarketer pegs the number of U.S. kids between eight and 11 currently actively using the internet at 10.5 million and projects there will be 11.6 million by 2010. So it might seem like creating viral and social networking campaigns specifically for these kids is a slam dunk. However, clever social networking promotions that work so well with the teen and college set aren’t necessarily the best means of reaching younger kids on-line. Regardless of technological advances, they are more often interested in creative play than networking with their peers.

‘Any good marketer will tell you that you need to look at the unique needs of kids and design something around them,’ says John Geraci, president of Honeoye Falls, New York-based Crux Research. (The company has conducted a study on youth behavior on-line.) He concedes MySpace has been great with young adults, but questions the notion of dumbing down the concept for kids. ‘That hasn’t worked with any product, so why would it work with this?’ In other words, copycat social networking promotions aimed at kids won’t hit the mark.

First and foremost, there’s legislation in place to keep kids from falling prey to internet predators and frauds. Marketers looking to capitalize on social networks with kid members have to tread very carefully as COPPA (Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act) restricts collecting data on-line from children under the age of 13 without parental consent. New social networking/blogging site, Xanga.com, for one, got a wake-up call earlier this year when it contravened the act. The Federal Trade Commission fined the site US$1 million for collecting personal information from kids – 1.7 million of them – and reportedly using it to send targeted ads. In response, Xanga has hired a chief safety officer and is now carefully screening solicited information.

Social development is another huge factor limiting kids’ web-based networking activities. There’s no doubt kids are on-line and loving it, but creating a promotion that will engage them requires an understanding of what they are mature enough to absorb. ‘There’s a real pivot point or change that takes place between the ages of eight to 11 and 12 to 14,’ says Debra Aho Williamson, senior analyst at eMarketer and author of Tweens and Teens Online: From Mario to MySpace. ‘The type of things they do on-line shifts pretty radically from games and solitary activities and surfing around to really using the internet for communicating and socializing.’

Xanga, MySpace and Facebook are among the most popular examples of true social networking sites. Visitors create a personal profile page, post blog entries and rack up friends. But most significant in the kids world of social on-line interaction are play sites such as Whyville.net, Neopets.com and Clubpenguin.com that get kids and tweens not only playing, but starting to interact with others on the site.

Debbie Solomon, senior partner and research director at media buying firm MindShare in Chicago, has also found that the maturity factor plays a major role in the types of sites kids respond to. ‘The younger kids are using the internet to play games, watch videos and for school. They’re not writing e-mails, they’re not doing IM,’ she says.

Similarly, MindShare’s recent study Kids, Tweens and Teens and Technology found that the three age groups use the internet very differently. While tweens explore, become more acquainted with searches and start to connect with their friends, younger kids stick to playing games and doing solitary task-oriented activities. ‘They like games, artistic tasks – something they can create [and] they don’t mind playing games without other people,’ says Solomon.

If you’re wondering at this point whether there’s any opportunity in the social networking space for kids marketing, a recent Toyota promo at Whyville.net might help point the way.

The site created for kids eight to 15, engages them in a fantastical game environment, while introducing a little bit of social networking. An edu-tainment site, kids and tweens create an avatar and live out an adventure in Whyville’s virtual world. Currently, Whyville has more than 1.7 million users with 60,000 new kids registering as citizens every month, and spending an average of three hours per month on the site.

Auto giant Toyota hooked up with the site to promote its new Scion model with a campaign that aims to endear the brand to young future car buyers and maybe even influence their parents’ next car purchase. The company created a virtual dealership in Whyville called Club Scion. Kids can save up enough Whyville currency to buy their own customized Scions and pick up their friends for rides. Toyota Financial Services is also sponsoring a credit office in Whyville that teaches kids how to finance a car, in some cases, the hard way – if they miss a payment a boot is put on their Scion or it’s repossessed.

‘Club Scion has enriched the experience the kids have in an authentic way,’ says Jay Goss, COO of Numedeon, which owns and operates Whyville. And since the promotion began last April, kids have purchased more than 3,000 virtual Scions. This past August and September alone, Club Scion scored 280,000 visits, while the Whyvillians took 140,000 spins around the neighborhood in their new Toyotas.

Kids also chat about the Scions they see in Whyville, create bumper stickers for their cars and vote for the most tricked- out Scion in contests. What’s more, pedestrian Whyvillians see Scions as they happen to zip across their screen, which essentially becomes a micro advertisement for the cars. ‘That might be more valuable to Scion than the core advertisement we created for them,’ Goss adds.

Rather than simply shoving car information at players or relying on them to pass word of the Scion brand on to their peers, the promotion engages the kids while simultaneously reinforcing the Whyville experience.

‘We have finally figured out a way to flip-flop the relationship between the advertiser and those that consume the media, in which the advertiser actually enriches the site,’ says Goss.

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