How YouTube and Build-A-Bear Engage Kids Without Collecting Data

According to a new study, one-third of children are having their first interactions with mobile devices before they’re one year old, and more than half of those children are using mobile to watch video content. With so many kids having easy access to the Internet, social media has become child-friendly.

Vine recently launched its Vine Kids app, which features youth-oriented videos pulled from the main site but does not allow advertising. YouTube Kids takes a slightly different approach. The app features many child-friendly channels as well as ad content from select brands. YouTube screens both content and sponsors carefully before including them on the app.

“For content, we wanted to ensure that kids had the opportunity to explore their curiosities with the breadth and depth of content available on YouTube,” says a source from the Google-owned platform. “In order to ensure the videos are family-friendly, the videos are narrowed from the main YouTube corpus using extensive precautions including intelligent and dynamic algorithms, manual sampling, and testing.” And as for advertisers, YouTube says, “We’ll slowly ramp up to a broader set of advertisers. All ads on YouTube Kids are bound to our advertising policies and review processes.”

But as social media platforms begin to create separate apps intended for children, many brands remain wary of marketing ethically on the Internet, according to Dylan Collins, chief executive (CEO) of SuperAwesome, a U.K.-based marketing platform that helps brands like Hasbro and Lego obey child privacy laws. “The kids industry has been in this weird place because there’s about $12 billion spent on TV advertising in the U.S. and the U.K. but the total spend on digital advertising in the same market is about $700 million, which makes no sense when you consider that most kids are on some kind of mobile or tablet or laptop device,” says Collins.

In America, the Child’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) prevents brands from collecting data on children, which makes some advertisers nervous. “COPPA prohibits any behavioral digital advertising to kids under the age of 13,” Collins says. “So basically you can’t do retargeting and essentially you can’t do any type of programmatic, and so kind of the mainstream online ad industry has been gradually pulling out of the under 13 space because the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) has handed out $9 million in fines in the last few years.”

However, as more and more children move to mobile, many brands are finding fun ways to engage with children that don’t involve data. For example, plush toy brand Build-A-Bear uses its YouTube Kids channel and app to encourage kids to go outside and play with their toys. “We really want to be the purveyors of childhood wonderment and to get kids back outside, go play,” says Brian Sawyer, senior managing director of digital for Build-A-Bear. The brand recently launched an app that acts as a free companion to its “Promise Pets” line of stuffed dogs and cats. The app awards points to kids every time they care for their pets by walking or playing with them.

And while Build-A-Bear can’t collect specific data, it can use the app to understand how kids are interacting with their product. “We don’t know the difference between gender or age or any of the geolocation,” Sawyer says. “All we know is if a child played with the springer spaniel versus the Persian kitty. At a macro level, I’ll know 500 people played it. But for us it’s important to know how much time people spent. If someone has the kitty and is not playing this game, we can look at that data at an aggregate level to see if the game is something we want to continue to evolve or if we should optimize another piece of the app.”

Children’s brands that fail to invest in ethical programs for mobile are soon going to find themselves locked out of a very important market, according to Collins. “As new avenues open up, that wall of money stuck in TV is absolutely going to come pouring in. The digital kids’ ad market is one that is going to triple or quadruple in a couple of years. Its equilibrium level is actually close to 10 times its current price in comparison to TV spending. We have this really interesting situation where there’s this potentially huge market with a handful of players racing to grow as quickly as they can in this sector, and we’re just trying to be the good guys in this space.”

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