Marketing to Kids Isn’t Child’s Play

Because my own child is too young for them, I had to learn about Webkinz from my dentist. Her preteen daughters’ excitement over the plush toys prompted her to liken them to the Cabbage Patch Kids craze of the ’80s. And that’s saying something.

Behind the mass interest in Webkinz is their, well, link to the Web. Buy a Webkinz toy and you also get an avatar in its likeness that lives in a virtual world hosted at Kids adopt a toy, name it, and interact with others social-networking-style, all online. They can also play games and take quizzes to earn points that can be used to enhance their Webkinz’s lifestyle and virtual home.

About the only thing Webkinz doesn’t have is advertising. No sponsored features, sections, or products are incorporated in the virtual world.

Omitting ads from the Webkinz world isn’t the only way advertising to kids is limited. Last week, consumer-package goods (CPG) giant Kellogg announced it will curb marketing to kids under 12 for products that fail to meet certain nutritional guidelines. Online games, downloads, wallpapers, mobile marketing, and viral marketing are among the initiatives that will be restricted.

The company’s brand sites will offer little respite from its stringent new marketing policy; visits to sugary-cereal properties will be automatically shut down after 15 minutes, and kids encouraged to go outside to play. Over the past few years, Kraft and Disney have adopted similar guidelines.

If you represent a client whose target audience includes young children, you can’t afford to avoid the Web. EMarketer data from 2005 found 39 percent of kids aged 3 to 11 and 74 percent of teens are regular Internet users. The kid and teen Internet population is expected to grow to 37.8 million by 2008.

At the same time, clients are increasingly limited as to how and where they can advertise to minors. Advertisers must comply with the Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU) and the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which prevents the collection and use of personal information from children under 13 without parental consent.

Most marketers have dealt with these restrictions by promoting their products through custom-built advergames and virtual worlds. A precursor to Webkinz, Viacom’s Neopets site featured a McDonald’s virtual store as far back as 2004. But as demonstrated by Webkinz, not everyone thinks integrating commercial content into children’s entertainment is such a great idea.

A tried-and-true solution for online marketers targeting kids is banner ads on third-party sites. For buyers who are also parents and particularly cautious about how they advertise to children, concerns may be alleviated by the fact many of today’s properties offer content that’s not only entertaining but also educational. An added benefit is they tend to feature few ad units, so your message won’t get lost in the clutter.

The Family Education Network, the online consumer division of higher education publisher Pearson Education, offers access to over a million parents and kids through its site. Its property offers content-integrated microsites, a Kids Center home page takeover, and sponsored editorial content, including printable special features like branded holiday wish lists. According to the network, 77 percent of its users access the Internet with their kids.

MSN’s online dictionary, encyclopedia, and atlas site, MSN Encarta, offers a Homework Help section that covers K-12, as well as parental advice. MSN is also relaunching MSN Kids and integrating a new Family Activities page, including games, quizzes, facts, and e-cards for kids 6 to 11, into its MSN Lifestyle: Family and Parenting section.

Discovery Kids also does a great job of creating a safe, educational place for kids and integrating advertising in a responsible fashion (full disclosure: Discovery Kids is a client). The site lets young users know when they are about to enter a section that includes commercial messaging and reminds them to never disclose personal information without parental permission.

Kids may be one of the toughest demographics to target online, but there are ways to achieve success while remaining age-appropriate in your placements and messaging. Kudos to the dedicated companies that are striving to make advertising work for kids, parents, and marketers alike.

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