We've looked at creating content for a senior-focused Web site. This week, let's sip from the fountain of youth and turn back the clock to when you were 10 years old, barely aware of hormones, taxes, insider trading, and everything else that seems to get people into hot water. How do you create content your inner 10-year-old would refer to as "really tight, dude"?
The obvious first places to go for ideas are the tried and true sites. Fox Broadcasting Company has a particularly loud, well-liked site just for Netizens under age 12. You can tool around Yahooligans!, where you'll find everything from PETA's site just for kids to a fascinating site dedicated to the complete inventory of all animal species on earth.
In terms of content and design, these sites are as all over the map as adult fare. Yet, in studying the obviously more successful efforts, common themes appear. Here are a few basic tips:
Segment the market. "Kids" refers to a very broad spectrum of interests, abilities, and attention spans. Obviously, a four-year-old has different interests than someone who is 12. In kids' heads, even a span of two or three years makes a huge difference (how different were you at ages 11 and 14?). As children get into the teen years, they'll probably gravitate away from anything "for kids." As a rule of thumb, anything labeled "for kids" is best kept to the 11-and-under crowd.
Don't cheap out just because it's a kid's site. Younger Internet users expect the graphics and attention to detail they find on sites targeted to adults. I was disappointed to find the stark contrast between NASA's content-rich site for the space shuttle and its site "just for kids." The latter lacks content and pizzazz..
Privacy matters. Be aware of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act. Its intent is to protect the privacy of children using the Internet. What that means for you is commercial Web sites must obtain parental consent before collecting, using, or disclosing personal information from children under age 13. There are a few exceptions regarding collecting email addresses. For example, no consent is required if you collect an email address for a one-time request by a child (e.g., for homework help) if the address is then deleted.
Think interaction. Many of us grew up gap-mouthed and passive in front of the TV set. Children today know a TV can become a highly interactive videogame arcade with a few clicks of the remote. Kids expect even more from their computers. The most successful sites allow young users to play games, send e-postcards, post questions, answer polls, submit stories, and enter contests. (Again, watch the data you collect and whether you'll need parental consent.)
Get graphic. Eight- or ten-year-olds have been reading for half a decade -- at most. They've been looking at pictures a lot longer. If you want to keep them interested, cut down on big blocks of text. Graphics, especially cartoons, keep things interesting and often relay information more effectively than the best-turned prose.
Don't talk down to your audience. We all know the lure of many cartoons is the jokes are often surprisingly sophisticated. Remember Bullwinkle the moose who joked his way through the Cold War? The under-five set thought he was just a wacky cartoon character with a know-it-all squirrel sidekick. In general, you can't go wrong assuming your target market is a little more sophisticated and precocious than it lets on. The alternative is "dumbing down" material, and that approach always falls flat.
Shorten instructions, but make them easy to understand. Time and again, I watch my 10-year-old son ignore instructions, then become frustrated with a new video or computer game. Kids don't want to interrupt valuable playtime with boring instructions, even if they're necessary. The trick is to make instructions short and easy to understand. Even better if they're part of the game.
Get kids' feedback. Even 15-year-old Webmasters have a few years between themselves and true "kid" age. As few of us remember exactly what we were thinking in the third grade, it pays to ask kids directly. You can test your site with children rather easily. Just get some age-appropriate neighbors' or coworkers' children and ask them to mouse around your site. Don't say too much. The idea is to watch. What do they think is cool, boring, or horribly "last year"? Watch for "groupthink," a typical behavior among painfully self-conscious preteens.
Susan Solomon is the executive director of marketing and public relations for Memorial Health Services, a five-hospital health system in Southern California. In this capacity, she manages promotional activities for both traditional and new media. Susan is also a marketing communications instructor at the University of California, Irvine; California State University, Fullerton; and the University of California, Los Angeles.