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Marketing With, Not to, Kids 101

  |  February 19, 2008   |  Comments

What 2-year-old twins can teach you about the ins and outs of persuasion and marketing.

Don't be deceived by this column. I'm no marketing expert!

I may think I know all the tricks in the book, but that just isn't the case. I may even be a bit of a fraud. As they say, the truth inevitably comes out.

Just ask my 2-year-old twins. If the consumer is boss, the twins are co-CEOs, and trust me, they know what's up!

Lately I've been trying to master the ins and outs of persuasion and marketing in the context of getting my lovable twins to do certain things. It's a humbling exercise, constantly requiring pause for introspection, retooling, and an occasional dab of self-pity. Oh, and I'm hardly immune from the occasional head scratching from my wife, Erika.

For example, almost every morning I dress the kids and take them to childcare. I instinctively start the process with delusions of Web 2.0 speed and efficiency and overly romanticized notions of "conversation." It's always a delightful and heartwarming process, but it rarely lines up with the marketing plan -- or my desired product-launch timing.

With challenge come both humility and learning. Here are a few of the truths and principles my twins have taught me:

  • Listen first, then market. You just can't start the day marketing to the kids. You've got to read the pulse and detect the early signals before embarking on a campaign of influence and persuasion. Yes, I know, this should come easy. I preach listening-centered marketing every day. But, man, it's not easy. Then again, if you don't prime your ears to those unmet needs, desires, and aspirations, the world's less manageable.

  • It's time spent, not clicks. Sometimes I feel like a marketer doing everything possible to get that darn click that will suddenly land me at the childcare center so I can get to work on time. But clicks tick, and that usually leads to bad decisions and outcomes. Time spent is far more relevant. The process just can't be forced or artificially sped up. Exercises like listening and patience put time on the clock, but it's time well spent. If you rush the process, you're toast and more time ultimately piles on the plate than when you listen and practice patience.

  • Bait and switch never works. For a while I thought I could get away with bait-and-switch tactics to get certain things done (e.g., talk about a future of ice cream but stick 'em with Shredded Wheat). But my twins read through this with the clairvoyance of a pet that knows a bath is around the corner. In the end, trust and credibility suffer on this one. Don't promise juice if you intend to give them water. Trust is fragile with impressionable minds.

  • Engagement and empowerment matter. You can't ask your kids to do things and expect them to convert or suddenly become loyal buyers. It just doesn't work that way. They need to be constantly empowered and engaged and always given choices from which to choose. If my daughter Leila's inclined to resist overtures for putting on socks, the terms of engagement must shift to empowering her to choose between, say, white socks and pink socks. But even that's not a guarantee. You really need to invest time in figuring out what constitutes a meaningful choice. Which takes us back to the listening principle.

  • Heed and respect a (silent) third-party influencer. Parental figures are supposed to be the ultimate influencers in a child's life, but don't underestimate Elmo. He (or it) is trusted, dependable, and consistent and always gives the impression that he listens and cares. Combined with his lovability, he's a close second to God for a 2 to 3 year old. Just as a blogger might quote "The New York Times" to bolster her credibility, I often find myself partnering with Elmo to get things done. My good friend Dave Evans offered this thought when I asked my Web 2.0 Dads Facebook group about why Elmo is so revered by young kids: "As adults, we're all cynical and sophisticated -- so we zero-in on stuff that is lost on a toddler. Elmo exemplifies a basic simplicity that a toddler locks onto and makes sense of." But perhaps even closer to the mark, my friend Ted McConnell of Procter & Gamble notes: "Elmo gives the impression of listening by simply not talking."

  • He who reads eventually sleeps. It sounds counterintuitive, but if you invest the time in reading, the kids will eventually crash -- unless you do first -- and this will ultimately save time. My Web 2.0 efficiency mindset is still getting used to this, but I'm beginning to understand the payout of investing the time to opening up the world of books. It puts all the good principles I've discussed above to work. I've far from perfected this part, but I know it's one of the most important and meaningful forms of "marketing to kids.

  • The customer isn't always fair. The twins don't always play fair. They bait and switch all the time. They seduce me for goodies, and have perfected the art of good cop/bad cop. They sometimes know how a well-rehearsed tear will result in Daddy (and sometimes Mommy) climbing Everest on their behalf. It's not always fair, and often these customers are outright deceptive. But I still need to respect, understand, and tolerate the approach. This isn't to suggest that there are no lines. Indeed, as my colleague and power-mom Sue MacDonald notes, "Forced marketing is always the fall-back position." She adds, "Regardless of the constant need for a listening/sensing mode, sometimes the parent simply has to take on the role of ultimate marketer, ├╝ber-decider, the 'because I said so!'"

Final Word

Parenting is an absolute joy and honor, and strangely enough I actually think I'm becoming a better, more intuitive marketer.

You just might want to run your next marketing plan by your kids.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Pete Blackshaw

Pete Blackshaw, whose professional background encompasses public policy, interactive marketing, and brand management, is executive vice president of strategic services for Nielsen Online, a combination of Nielsen BuzzMetrics, a firm Pete helped cofound, and Nielsen//NetRatings. One of Pete's key focuses is helping brands interpret, manage, and act on consumer-generated media (CGM). A former interactive marketing leader at P&G and founder of consumer feedback portal PlanetFeedback.com, Pete cofounded the Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA). He authors several blogs, including ConsumerGeneratedMedia.com, and is the author of an upcoming book from Random House, "Satisfied Customers Tell Three Friends, Angry Customers Tell 3000: Running a Business in Today's Consumer-Driven World."

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