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App Craze Among Kids a Challenge for Advertisers

  |  June 10, 2010   |  Comments

In a world where toddlers can access apps on mobile devices, how do we filter the onslaught of ads?

Anyone with kids and an iPhone surely has a hard time remembering what life was like before the two became acquainted. Dinners out and airplane trips now routinely deliver the same scene: children ranging in age from preschoolers to pre-teens happily whiling away the hours on their parents' mobile devices. The degree to which these kids are entrenched in the technology can be astounding; there's nothing quite like the first time you hear them utter the words, "Mommy, can I get a new app pleeeease?"

My own revelation about the degree to which children are equipped and able to interact with mobile technology came when my then-16 month old easily activated my iPhone and navigated to the app he had seen his sister play. Now, a couple of months later, he can he make virtual balloon animals with the best of them and actually learned the meaning of the word "shake" by way of playing the game.

He's part of a generation of children for whom using mobile technology is a way of life. These kids watch as their parents text and browse anywhere and everywhere, and are hard-wired to do the same (Nielsen reports that the use of a mobile device is 12 percent higher in households that include kids). A new study has found that mobile media has boosted media consumption among kids aged 8 to 18; this demographic averages 7.5 hours a day (more than 53 hours a week) engaging in entertainment media. This group actually spends more time listening to music, playing games, and watching videos on their mobile phones than talking on them.

Consumer-packaged goods brands, entertainment companies, chain restaurants, and other marketers have always had their eye on this market, but never before has the market had its eyes so squarely on the media they employ to reach young consumers. IPhone and iPad applications, along with those offered by other smartphone companies, represent another way in which to reach them - one that surely has advertisers chomping at the bit.

If apps provide a resolution to the enduring issue of how to effectively connect with the youth demographic, however, they certainly don't offer any free rides. Advertisers shouldn't expect to have an easy time of reconciling their desire to connect with kids with a parent's desire to keep their kids away from ads.

One journalist (and mom) recently drew attention to a new campaign designed to educate children about advertising. A joint project between the Federal Trade Commission and Scholastic.com, Admongo.gov uses an online game to teach kids to identify ads and understand what they're trying to achieve and why. This effort to encourage critical thinking in a world where kids are incessantly targeted with advertising is not only vital, it challenges advertisers to come up with more creative and socially benevolent ways to make their message heard. Because, let's face it, the advertisers aren't going anywhere.

One option is, of course, to advertise within the apps themselves. Mobile ad networks make it easy to distribute banners across popular apps, but targeting can sometimes be a nebulous task, and there is perhaps no greater advertising sin in the eyes of a parent than to inadvertently deliver an inappropriate or irrelevant ad to a child.

Brands like Disney are finding ways around this by developing branded apps to promote their products. Disney Publishing Worldwide built two Toy Story apps for the iPad that take the form of read-along books enhanced with video clips, games, and other enticing activities. In a clever cross-promotion, those who choose a paid version of the app receive a free one-month trial subscription to its Digital Books service (Disney has also built a custom iPad version of its Disney.com web site featuring video from its films and TV programming).

As Disney is demonstrating, it's wise to focus on education. PBS recently released the results of a study on the educational value of mobile applications that found the use of its Martha Speaks app - designed to boost oral vocabulary - improved vocabulary in 31 percent of children aged 3 to 7. As of late last year, 60 percent of the top 25 paid apps in the iTunes App Store's education channel were intended for toddlers and preschoolers. Most parents seem more than willing to spend a couple of bucks on an advertising-free app, but don't mind if their child is exposed to commercial characters if there's some educational value to be had. And if given a choice between a frivolous app and one that can teach her toddler to recognize shapes and letters, she'll choose the latter every time.

Another option for digital media buyers is to purchase banners on app review sites. These sites provide access to the parents rather than their children, but - dare I say it - one could argue that's the more appropriate approach anyway. Apart from long-standing sites like Macworld, options like Best Kids Apps are cropping up everywhere, many of them offering inexpensive placements for early adopters.

If as a digital marketer you have app fever but as a parent you're eager to manage the same affliction in your child, consider apps from both points of view and devise a solution that serves the interests of everyone involved. Here's an opportunity to enhance this uncharted territory with a positive contribution that still meets your objectives as a brand.

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Tessa Wegert

Tessa Wegert is a business reporter and former media strategist specializing in digital. In addition to writing for ClickZ since 2002, she has contributed to such publications as USA Today, Marketing Magazine, Mashable, and The Globe and Mail. Tessa manages marketing and communications for Enlighten, one of the first full-service digital marketing strategy agencies servicing such brands as Bioré, Food Network, illy, and Hunter Douglas. She has been working in online media since 1999.

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