The playroom we all live in
I have a sister who is much younger than me. I remember practicing my killer basketball skills on the courts in middle school when I received news that I needed to rush to the hospital to welcome baby Ellie into the world. Ellie and I have been able to grow close over the years. I like to think I’m not the terrorizing, bossy older sister, but rather more like a caring aunt or even second, “cool” Mom.
Ellie is now in middle school herself, obsessed with her iPhone and constantly documenting every moment of her life via Instagram. Last weekend at a family dinner, I couldn’t have a conversation with Ellie without her looking at her phone every two seconds. She takes pictures of the food, texts a friend. She takes a picture of the shirt my other sister is wearing, posts it to Instagram. She takes a picture of herself, and another picture of herself, and yet another before grabbing my own phone to continue taking pictures of herself. I’m sitting there thinking, how did this happen? At what age does it start? What is fueling kids, even much younger than Ellie, to be constantly connected to their devices, or should I say toys? Technology is becoming child’s play as more manufacturers are producing toys, whether it’s an iPhone for Ellie, or an app that allows youngsters to race Hot Wheels on the surface of an iPad, brands are now producing toys that extend well beyond the living room and into the digital world.
Brands at the dinner table
The consensus from toy experts at the 109th annual American International Toy Fair is that the biggest trend in toys in 2012 is the merging of online apps with physical toys. The sense is that traditional toys will not become obsolete, but will have a new twist. Now, little girls everywhere will be able to snap pictures with their Barbie Photo Fashion doll. This doll has a digital camera and stores up to 100 photos; you can constantly re-create trendy tees for Barbie by uploading the photos you take onto Barbie’s sleek t-shirt.
If Ellie’s behavior is any indication, it’s not a question as to whether or not kids (and thus parents) adopt these toys. That much is clear. But how will marketers take advantage of the fact that children are now engaging with the toy beyond the physical realm, where actions and behaviors can be tracked and digitally archived?
It’s a not too distant future when Ellie, after posting a picture of my other sister’s shirt to Instagram, may be fed helpful and targeted content, like consumer reviews, stories, or special offerings (both online & in store) based on her expressed style preference and interests through photo sharing. These types of solutions are feeding the appetite of consumer’s desires to have relevant personalized shopping experiences.
Marketing to children
Many people are wondering if personalized shopping in the toy industry allows marketers to gain an upper hand on parents by targeting kids directly. It’s estimated that kids already influence $1.12 trillion in overall family spending today. Children are already incredibly persuasive. They are also incredibly impressionable. According to a recent USA Today Article, babies as young as 6 months old can form mental images of logos and mascots, and brand loyalty can be established as early as 2 years old.
Imagine your child, Johnny, is playing with his new stuffed animal and every time he squeezes the animal’s belly an interactive game appears on the family iPad that enables interactive play between your child and the stuffed animal. You are cooking dinner and in between games, an image of the newest toy slated to launch right before Christmas appears on the screen, leaving an impression on Johnny. You’ll undoubtedly hear about it at dinner and every day until he has that toy in hand. We know kids are spending less time watching TV and more time playing on digital devices, and marketers are starting to take note.
The fairy tale ending
What I don’t hear people are talking about is the opportunity to turn these trends into a win-win for brands, parents, and kids alike. Consumers are more willing to give brands information, about themselves and in some cases, their children, if it’s presented as an opportunity to share and provide data that the brand will use to better serve the consumer, fulfill their needs, and connect them to like-minded people. Brands need to make it less about how they can target consumers and more about using data to serve them, while engaging advocates.
Imagine you’re downloading the app so Johnny can use the family iPad to play with his new stuffed animal, and you’re asked to share information about yourself and your family. The context for asking is all about connecting with other moms like you who also have children playing with the same toy and using the same app. The content you submit is accessible on your computer where you can see profile information from other moms on the brand’s website (brands can even introduce gamification here to encourage contribution). There you can get everything from tips on optimal play, suggestions on how the game can help your child learn, or ask questions about similar toys in an authentic way, from moms to moms. In this scenario, consumers are able to gain insights to make informed decisions based on other people like them. The brand now has useful data about your preferences that will be used to innovate and produce toys that meet your expectations and delight your children.
How is the user experience for the child affected in this new world? I think the answer lies somewhere in Joe McCann’s recent post about in-app product placement. Make product placement within ads interactive and in the case of marketing to children, educational and fun. Challenge Johnny to choose which new games he wants to engage with based on past game performance. Give Mom the controls to control what type of content Johnny is allowed to interact with in these ads. Surface up different options and see what type of games Johnny is naturally drawn to. This creates a more engaging, safe experience for kids and fuels ongoing insight for the brand.
We’re living in an exciting age where the convergence of time spent on digital devices along with the ability to capture data and directly engage with consumers should help move us along into a so-called perfect market where supply effectively meets demand. The most successful brands will be able to surface up the right content to the right consumer (parents and children) in the right place and time, in ways that clearly benefit consumers.