In today’s analytics- and algorithm-driven world of digital content, the demand for research and data that can inform established and emerging kidvid producers has never been greater.
Take successful children’s nursery rhyme YouTube channel Mother Goose Club, for example. It’s hard to believe it’s been nine years (a lifetime online) since New York-based Sockeye Media launched the channel to create educational preschool shorts for local PBS stations.
More than 3.5 million subscribers and 4.3 billion views later, the channel is essentially YouTube royalty now, and still going strong.
“In the beginning, we put our content up on YouTube just to share it with industry people at conferences like Kidscreen Summit,” says Harry Jho, CEO and executive producer of Sockeye Media. “It turned out that other people were watching our videos, too. We ended up being one of the first kids channels on the platform completely by accident.”
With YouTube still as its primary platform, Mother Goose Club has now reached the point financially where it can extend its brand to other outlets.
Based on the success of its long-form online and DVD compilations, Netflix came knocking last spring and signed a global deal. “It’s currently streaming one season comprised of five episodes that are between 30 and 40 minutes long. Now we’re looking to see how we can expand this long-form experience to other media distributors like broadcast,” says Jho.
Jho adds that the channel owes a lot to YouTube’s steady improvement as a platform over the years.
“In the early days, it wasn’t necessarily possible to easily upload a one-hour or two-hour compilation and have it optimized for the audience,” he says. “But as YouTube improved its delivery capabilities, we found that parents adjusted from clicking through themselves or having their kids click through, to just wanting to turn on a 15- or 30-minute compilation for more of a traditional viewing experience.”
Jho contends there is still room for the shorter video experience, but because the audience today is so varied, producers need to hit each segment based on demand. He also notes that kids who watched Mother Goose Club six years ago are not watching anymore, so the brand has to be re-introduced to new kids almost daily.
“For those of us who are more established on the platform, there is a challenge in terms of keeping it fresh. It’s not always going to be static, and just because something worked in 2010 does not necessarily mean it will work today, so we have to continually look at what’s on trend,” he says.
This is when, according to Jho, data engagement plays a crucial role in the growth of the channel. “From the very beginning, we’ve always been really engaged with our data, especially the viewer retention data. It will tell you, for example, when viewers drop off or when they rewind video to see something again,” he says.
“One of our early findings saw significant drops in views with songs where the chorus might have been a little too long or repetitive. Since you get a lot of repeat viewers with kids, this definitely fed right back into our creative, so we mixed up the songs a little to facilitate more repeat engagement.”
Jho also stresses the importance of play listing when it comes to optimizing how content is presented. “We’ve been really getting a feel for how people want to be exposed to content, and because you have to program yourself on YouTube, it does make a difference if you lead off with a particular song and then follow up with another song,” he says.
Now that deeper data-dives have helped Sockeye grow its Mother Goose Club audience—which has, in turn, enabled the company to invest in higher production values—the next phase is a new 11-minute show concept.
“We’ve done quite a bit of work developing the characters and the world of Mother Goose Club as part of our general content stream, so now we’re working with California’s Foothill Entertainment to develop a new series,” says Jho. “We’re also going to launch an interactive book app sometime in the next two months and develop a live stage show.”
Looking at another established studio currently working with Netflix, The Jim Henson Company recently upped its research ante for the launch of Word Party, a new vocabulary-based preschool series from creator Alex Rockwell (Muppets Tonight, Elmo in Grouchland).
Unlike Mother Goose Club, which puts a great deal of stock in Google Analytics, Word Party relies heavily on results from both internal and third-party research.
The 26 x 11-minute original series, which debuted in Netflix territories worldwide in July 2016, follows four cuddly baby animals as they sing, dance and play. Vocab-wise, four learning words—two or three anchor words (familiar words) and a few aspirational words (less familiar words)—are introduced in each episode.
The development and production of the series marked a few milestones for Henson, including the app-first launch of an original IP and the first time it’s worked with a studio on informal research prior to a show being made.
After instant feedback from the app helped strengthen Word Party‘s characters and visual design, Henson built a bigger curriculum for the series through a partnership with 30 Million Words, a foundation from the University of Chicago.
Soon afterwards, Netflix came on board and requested that Henson conduct some informal testing to get feedback on the property from kids and parents.
“Netflix had questions about character likability, learning comprehension, the length of the show and whether or not it actually appeals to its age group. So we then organized testing with a New York preschool,” says Halle Stanford, Henson EVP of children’s entertainment.
“The feedback ranged from some parents not knowing about Netflix, to the younger child always having to watch what the older child watched. Suddenly, we realized we needed to broaden the show with comedy in order to grab the older kids, even if they know it’s not for them, and we also extended each ep to 11 minutes from seven.”
So far, Stanford says Netflix has not shared its actual metrics on the show, but the companies are in discussions about producing new eps. “What we do have is a tremendous amount of social media feedback,” she says.
While Stanford admits that the connections parents have through social media, in terms of the preschool audience, are both incredible and terrifying, she says there’s no denying when a property gets active across social media.
“There is already a big word party happening online. There are so many videos of babies, toddlers, preschoolers and families dancing to Word Party that we know we’ve hit a fun nerve, and we have the older kids engaged, too,” she says.
For Mother Goose Club, social media is also a big part of the platform. “We engage and moderate as much as we can on Twitter, Instagram and even through email,” says Jho. “If we see a lot of our fans watching our content in the living room or on a big screen and then YouTube data shows a steady uptick in TV viewing, this helps validate our plans to ensure the content looks great on a 60-inch screen, which is not something we had to worry about six years ago.”
When asked if the platform has a strategy around live-streaming, Jho says there could be opportunities. “As Facebook has become more video-based, we’ve been thinking about how to convert our social media engagement into more of a video-based engagement. And this is not even broadcast. It’s just five-second clips, but it’s also a type of production,” he says. “Of course, the thinking there would then affect how you produce the two-minute or three-minute productions, which would then hopefully feed into our new show eventually.”
Taking a closer look at social media integration, New York-based family entertainment company Driver Digital has found success in incorporating viewer comments directly into its popular Cool School YouTube shows Crafty Carol and Drew Pendous and then customizing content based on fan suggestions.
The strategy, says Driver Digital creative director Rob Kurtz, has helped generate more than 100 million lifetime views for 65 clips of Crafty Carol and more than 41 million for 21 eps of Drew Pendous.
“I don’t remember exactly how long it took us to get our first million views for Cool School, but it took at least a couple of years. Drew hasn’t yet been in existence for a whole year and it gets a few million views per month now. So it’s very rewarding for us,” says Kurtz. “My background is network television so it’s very special to get comments right away on your work,” he adds. “When we realized the engagement for those two shows was so intense, with thousands of comments, we kind of got the idea to be the next generation of Blue’s Clues.”
The company is also turning brand integrations into content, so if a viewer requests that Crafty Carol use a specific type of crafting product, Driver Digital will look to work directly with the brand that makes it.
“Following all the necessary FCC compliances, we can talk about a product or promote a movie trailer, for example, in an organic way. It’s mutually beneficial and the audience doesn’t feel bastardized in any sense, because they are getting something that they specifically requested,” says Kurtz.