Conducting research, or creating content, or engaging in marketing with youth can be tricky business. Many of us who have made our careers in the youth and family space know that attending to the legalities of youth marketing and research – online and offline – is just the beginning of considering the ethics of these endeavors. Many of us who spend significant time working on kid, tween or teen brands, products, and at youth oriented companies and organizations reflect upon the way our work affects the lives of children. Most of us question and worry about our work. We treat the job of communicating with and to children as a sacred one – not business as usual, but rather business that can make a difference – positive or negative – in the lives of children. But linking our work to children’s rights? Is that going too far?
Not surprisingly, LEGO doesn’t think so. Recently, LEGO announced that they were going to start taking steps in their online and offline marketing to protect the rights of children, specifically those outlined in UNICEF's Children's Rights and Business Principles, a guide to help business encourage and protect children's rights. UNICEF contends that companies not only have a responsibility to ensure that communication and marketing does not have an adverse affect on children's rights, but that marketing should be encouraging children's rights.
These principles might be geared towards businesses, but they call to mind a more comprehensive document, United Nation’s Conventions of the Rights of the Child (UN-CRC), that serves as the first legally binding international instrument created to protect the human—civil, cultural, economic, political, and social—rights of children.
Established in 1989, the UN-CRC outlines the basic rights and protections that all children should be given. While the UN-CRC is a political instrument meant to help governments, it also gives us insight into a global idea of what rights children have. Certainly all the articles of the UN-CRC are interesting, but three stood out to us and being particularly important for youth marketers and content creators:
Article 13: Freedom of Expression. Children have the right to give and receive information as long as that information is not damaging to them or others. Children’s voices are important, and Article 13 acknowledges that not only do children have voices, but what they have to say is valuable. This article not only encourages creative expression and children’s rights to express their feelings and become active producers, it also encourages adults to remember that the voices of children should be heard.
Article 17: Right to Media. Children have the right to get information that is important to their health and well-being. Rather than discourage media, the UN-CRC encourages media specifically designed for children, media that considers the needs and interests of children. More than just produce media for children, Article 17 also reminds us that this media should be available in multiple languages and be made available to all children. Children have the right to access media that represents the diversity of the world.
Article 31: Right to Play. Children have the right to relax and play and join in cultural and artistic activities. Article 31 is our favorite and one we completely agree with. Play can promote health and foster relationships. More importantly, play is a human right, something all children need to experience. The UN-CRC doesn’t limit itself on what play and leisure mean. Sports, games, toys, and relaxation should all be made available to children.
The UN-CRC reminds us that children are active agents in the world, and that our work has the power to support them. It’s likely the work that you’re doing considers children’s voices, or children’s right to media or children’s need for play. But considering these “strategies” or brand equities or positioning as rights might raise the stakes in your own organizations and on your youth teams.
Coming off of an inspiring week plus at conferences, listening to content creators, fellow researchers and strategists opine about the present and the future of kids, kids media and the youth and family marketplace, I found myself thinking about the kinds of risks that those of us who make our home in this space are often leery to take. In my own thinking about and work with youth, I’ve often found that deciding to live on the edge of what’s typical or acceptable sometimes yields unexpected insight and breakthrough ideas. On the surface, some of these risks might seem quite tame! But more than seeing them as safe, I see the common theme as a more optimistic view of the possibilities and potential of trying something new.
- Be nice. So often, in the youth space, being nice or good or kind feels like a young or soft positioning for a brand or property. Still, countless speakers echoed a sentiment that we’ve spoken about in our new work on Millennial Moms – “sensitive kids are the new successful kids.” Said another way, don’t worry about flexing your edge – consider standing for sweet over sarcasm, for good behavior over bad. Seek out heroes you can champion, not just foils who are sometimes humorous but hurtful.
- Dream big. At the iKids Conference, we spoke about the need to evaluate the app landscape, along with the online ecosystem in which youth engage, with realistic eyes. It’s more difficult than it might seem to create an app that rivals Angry Birds, or to take down Temple Run with a great game of your own. But what we also believe is that the visionaries who think big are the ones who are most likely to last. We advocate for developing a brand or a property, not just an application. Think about your proposition realistically, but holistically. Don’t get mired in mechanics to the point that you lose sight of the moxie that makes your content truly unique in the world. And then execute.
- Experiment. Across the course of the week, we were reminded that sometimes the old rules of conducting research, of gaining eyes on your brand, of engaging in the innovation and creative process itself could use some shaking up. As researchers, it’s easy to rely on “time-tested” approaches or models. But we believe that it’s as important to question and challenge these models as it is to understand them. Some of the most astute risks we saw taken came from folks who simply questioned why something was always done the way it has traditionally been. Granted, we wouldn’t suggest trying “new” just for the sake of “new,” but we would advise reflecting on your sacred cows and steadfast rules to ensure that they’re in the service of stimulation, not stagnation.
- Break the frame. More than any conference we’ve been to in a while, we liked that KidScreen and iKids bucked some conventions. Rather than just speakers at the podium (which we were honored to be!) or panels of authorities, we saw PechaKucha (look it up!) put in place to format the remarks of a set of experts, a “pass the baton” style look at viral videos that matter (with the creators of one of the favorites not only invited to talk about their work but also to share their own inspirations), to varied riffs on speed-dating. We like the spirit of these sessions – they sought to teach in ways that felt more visceral, more disruptive and still sound. Discussions about process are often overshadowed by discussions about outcomes, but the truth is, process matters. And innovation should apply as much to the way you work as it does to what you work on.
- Share. Time and time again, we see that the best brands – especially in the youth space – don’t hog the spotlight – they share the marquis. The same seems to go for the best and brightest creators and developers. They’re happy to share what they know, to exchange ideas and to collaborate. In a media landscape which seems to move increasingly swiftly, with expertise required in a myriad of methods, approaches and markets, it seems prudent, not polyanna-ish, to give in order to get.
In marketing, media, innovation and even in research, we can sometimes become victims of our own efficiency. Staying “big picture” and abiding by the old 80 for 20 rule seem to make perfect business sense. And Occam’s Razor (the hypotheses with the fewest assumptions should be selected and that simpler theories should be utilized until a more complicated one merits priority) is an oft-adopted mantra among sensible researchers.
Certainly, when starting research with youth, it’s natural to look to simple rules, guidelines and models to aid in interpretation. But over the years, we’ve noticed a few youth research shortcuts and youth insight practices that tend to lead marketers nowhere.
- Get the facts. Of course, researchers shouldn’t ignore facts. In fact, for example, we start our YouthBeat YearBook by looking at the demographic realities, of today’s youth and families. But too often, we’ve seen clients start with a number designed to disrupt – say a large spending or influence number – and forget to bring kids’, tweens’ and teens’ voices and lived experiences to it. Understanding the size of a market is important, but so is identifying the dynamics that make a market and the products that comprise it matter to youth.
- Focus your reading. We often get asked for recommendations on research specific to a topic related to youth. And of course, it may be that the topic you’re interested in is covered in a single volume. But a deep understanding of youth requires context – it means not only understanding the role of a device in their lives, but it also requires understanding the way they spend their days. Perhaps you offer youth a product in the food category, but understanding how they relate to identity, morality, emotions and even authority come into play when you consider how to connect with them. And this matters more than, not less than, the flavor or property that they currently care about (even though, with the right knowledge to guide your analysis, this trendy data can be extremely valuable).
- Tune out and turn off. Of course, we all need a break from the subject that occupies our professional days! But too often, we’ve seen brilliant strategists and creatives toil away on an idea, or seek to develop an innovative concept, only to find that one just like it is already on TV or in-store. Understanding youth and youth culture doesn’t always mean participating in it (in fact, just because you’re an American Idol superfan doesn’t mean you’re attuned to youth’s perspective on the show!). But it does mean that you should turn on the TV or take in a kid flick or shop the aisles of the supermarket yourself, rather than just studying these from your desk. Don’t assume you understand a property’s appeal without really taking the time to get to know it (this is why years ago, many marketers saw Twilight as simply a vampire movie rather that recognizing the multiple moral and social strands that made it salient among teens). And steal a page from the way youth marketers and creatives of the past learned about their competitive set: go to where your competing programs air, operate or get consumed.
- Start at home. On one hand, we advocate for looking at the local and not ignoring the children you know. It’s natural that many of us will feel the most inspired and interested in the youth already lurking in our homes or our lives! But be aware of the pitfalls of curbing your curiosity there. You probably don’t assume that the women or men you research are like all the men and women in your lives. Remember, there are as many different children and childhoods as there are adults and to only attend to the insights you glean from your own offspring risks leading you astray.
- Keep it simple. This shortcut misstep often sounds like an affirmation that “nothing has changed” or an explanation that suggests that any youth phenomenon has just one cause or catalyst. In fact, any trend or truth related to youth often stems from a number of situational conditions. Just as most youth behaviors live somewhere along the continuum between nature and nurture, most preferences held by kids, tweens and teens reflect stage, age, experience and culture-at-large. And when you’re trying to understand what make one property or product or brand really work with your target, seek out more than one answer – not just the simple one that surfaces first.
Every January, the American Library Association announces the winners of some of the biggest awards in children’s and young adult literature. These awards are given for excellence in children’s books (John Newbery Award), illustration (Randolph Caldecott Award), young adult literature (Michael Printz Award), African-American children’s literature (Coretta Scott King Award), and much more. But the way these awards operate in the children’s literature space suggest lessons that a broader group of marketers and content creators can tap into.
In any category, it’s safe to assume that winning a major award increases sales. In the case of children’s literature, public libraries and schools see a medal on the cover as an endorsement of the author (for the unknowns) or as a reason to expand their collection of favorites. These awards and honors serve as insurance policies on the product’s quality, and also convey secondary but critical information about age-appropriateness. In a 2004 study conducted by Gundry E. Rowe, in which he surveyed public and school librarians, he found that nearly all the librarians bought award winning titles without even looking at plot summaries. In the extremely competitive marketplace for children’s books, winning an award can take a book from a few sales to hundreds of thousands. Certainly, libraries and schools look for materials to buy in a different way than parents, but these expert buyers and children’s lit curators create the selection set for moms, dads, aunts and uncles, and children themselves. In other categories, award winners are often a searchable category on online websites. For example, yoyo.com includes their “yoyo picks” but also lets buyers sort by Dr. Toy’s endorsements. With so many options available, these awards feel like a soft exertion of authority which moms and dads welcome.
In the children’s literature space, winning a major award propels authors to top status, signifying them as master craftsmen. An award can turn an unknown into a key player and force within a specific market. Long before Maurice Sendak’s Where the Wild Things Are (1964) was a classic children’s book, it was a Caldecott Award winner in 1964. The award gave Sendak, and his artwork, a boost in popularity. Today, Sendak’s artwork is an important part of many children’s lives, and the image of Max and the Wild Things is a part of children’s culture.
What lessons can we take from looking carefully at the ALA Awards?
- Endorsement matter. Even for a cohort of moms that might not believe that there’s one source of expertise in any category, they seek out ways to distinguish quality products from simply popular one.
- Remember to recognize the influencers. While understanding consumer preference is harder than ever in an age with so many property and content possibilities, remember that experts from unexpected places might be more influential than ever. Make sure you have a plan to connect with them.
- While awards might, on the surface, say more about parent preferences than kids’ requests, they also suggest a glimpse at the marketplace. Even if kids are empowered to make their own choices, they are still limited to the subset of goods that adults allow them to access.
Self-publishing isn’t new, but over the past few years, more and more writers have been publishing their work online (E. L. James’ 50 Shades of Gray was originally self-published and Hugh Howey’s Wool saga remains one of Amazon’s top-selling ebooks).
It’s no surprise that teens, who have grown up in a crowd-sourced, content-sharing culture, are now getting in on self-publishing. If a teen is one of the 97% who have access to the Internet, he or she can freely publish and sell novels, poems, and short stories. Recently, a teenage girl sold her Young Adult novel to Random House and the publisher plans to release more of her books in the future.
Certainly, not all teens write, or even read for pleasure, so what makes self-publishing so relevant? First, these self-publishing sites and spaces, like Amazon Digital Services, provide a place where truly new ideas can be considered. Many of the hottest YA titles over the past few years were written by teenagers, making it clear that the world of self-publishing is a perfect place to find untapped talent and ideas. Paying attention to the self-publishing world might provide you with a front row seat to the next batch of powerful youth properties.
While we wouldn’t advocate assuming that the teens who self-publish are “representative” of all teens, the titles that other teens gravitate towards will tell you something about the reads that resonate with this group. Without the intervention of editors and traditional booksellers, these self-published works reveal the kinds of stories and topics that truly interest teens and that might be currently missing from the market. And teens not only write their own novels, but they design their own covers and market their work. How they package their stories suggests both how they perceive marketing, but also allows us to see an aesthetic that’s generated cultivated by teens themselves. According to librarian Amy Pelman, the self-publishing trend not only shows a lot of potential in terms of sales, but it also allows teens to produce and read books without adults.
Exploring the stories of self-publishing provides access to talented teenagers who are creative and innovative, whose ideas are fresh and unique, and who are producing material they can’t seem to find elsewhere. These books, and the world they inhabit, provide insight into what teens currently like and what they are starting to think about for the future.
With the immense popularity of Nintendo’s new Super Mario 3D World for Wii U, we thought it was time to think about what makes Mario such an important and popular character among kids, tweens, and teens (and the namesake of kids’ favorite video game since YouthBeat’s launch in 2008).
For our YouthBeat readers who weren’t around then, Mario first appeared in the 1981 arcade game Donkey Kong. Since then, he has appeared in over 200 video game titles and the Mario franchise games have sold millions of units. Mario, and the characters and world built around him, have surrounded youth in the form of cartoons, comics, films, toys and countless objects of play and design.
So, what makes Mario (the character and the franchise) so popular?
- Mario Lets Kids Learn as They Go. No matter the Mario title, players are slowly and methodically introduced to the key movements and elements of the game. Not only does this help players develop skills, but it also encourages players to challenge themselves and push further. With each new level, there are new skills to learn. And for mastery-loving kids, this chance to get good and test your skills serves as a recipe for success!
- Mario Can Fit Many Forms. Mario has done a lot of rescuing over the years, and he has shown that he can be a hero in any setting. Whether it’s a classic side-scrolling platform (Super Mario Brothers), 3D open adventure (Super Mario 64), a race (any Mario Kart), or a fighting game (Super Smash Brothers), Mario has the ability to adapt to any type of game. Mario, an archetypical hero with a rags-to-riches story (he is a plumber who rescues princesses), begs you to root for him in every scenario in which he appears.
- Mario is Familiar. While conventional wisdom might suggest that new is necessary to keep kids interested, Mario suggests another model. Mario serves as the guide to new genres that kids can explore. He represents a typical hero (he is a plumber who rescues the princess) whose quests are filled with tragedy, comedy, and overcoming monsters (Bowser!). Within the larger Mario franchise, there are numerous fighting games, RPG games, and racing games. Everyone can find a game to love in the Mario universe.
- Mario is part of the Family. Mario is about as family-friendly as video games get (little violence, cute images, and simple humor). With the release of New Super Mario Bros. Wii, Nintendo has also been using Mario to bring families together by making the games cooperative. With Super Mario 3D World, parents and kids can work, learn, and play together.
What lessons can content creators and marketers alike learn from Mario?
- Incorporate learning and growth. This allows entry-points for all ages and skill levels.
- Think outside the box. Moving across different platforms enhances appeal, not detracts from the franchise’s DNA.
- Think about family. Cooperative play not only encourages family time, but also makes games more social and fun.
Now, who’s up for some real life Mario Kart?
We often hear about great causes and organizations at the end of the year. But since kids, tweens, and teens don’t care about tax write-offs, we see little reason why January 1st can’t be the start of their support of people, places and products/brands/companies that are making a difference! We know that this group of youth care about the world outside their neighborhood more than ever. They feel connected to others through many means. And they are prepared to solve the world’s biggest problems in ways that we might not always notice, but that, nonetheless, make them one of the most entrepreneurial generations ever to walk the earth! The organizations below sometimes include youth, but often serve their needs. Either way, we think these organizations deserve some recognition and also provide some valuable lessons for youth marketers.
Capes for Kids
We believe in kid empowerment, and certainly, no kids need or deserve to feel like superheroes more than kids who are sick. The Hero Project, which provides pediatric in-patients with customized superhero capes, understands that visible symbols of strength can go a long way towards making kids feel better, or at least braver in the face of unthinkable challenges. This group recognizes that one way to catalyze donations is by getting donors to give of their creativity, not just their money, as they encourage groups of friends, family members, etc. to get together and create capes as a collective.
Project Night Night
For victims of homelessness, having a snuggly toy or a care package offers more than just physical comfort – it gives a glimmer of hope and assurance that they matter. Project Night Night creates Night Night packages designed for children under five years old, “who can’t articulate their concerns overcome the anxiety, emotional and mental stress that comes with home displacement.” The project also offers a secondary benefit – keeping slightly used toys out of landfills. Project Night Night reminds us that there’s no place like home for small children, and when it’s not a safe space, kids need significant signs and symbols of well-being to help them carry on.
Room to Grow
The first “100 days” of a child’s life are incredibly important to their cognitive, social and emotional development. Room to Grow assists women living in poverty by providing them and their children with resources they need, including baby gear and clothing, along with an actual place where they can find support and community. This idea grew from the notion that many moms have baby gear that they didn’t want to go to waste. We think this is a great example of an organization that responded to an asset and found a deserving group of moms who needed it. This makes us wonder, who could benefit from the gifts your organization has to offer? How will you give with authenticity and integrity?
Who knew Dolly Parton would make our list of kid philanthropists in 2014? We think her idea – to provide preschoolers with a specially selected book, via mail, each month - is both ahead of its time, but also taps into many timeless truths about youth. First, getting something in the mail might make kids feel more special than ever before! A physical book can still feel like a gift to a child who has few. And bringing good-for-you content to kids is more effective than expecting them to come to you. We love this idea, which began in Tennessee, but is reaching the rest of the country rapidly.
Many of us are lucky enough to live in places with great schools, and almost all of us can remember a teacher who went above and beyond. You’ve likely seen statistics about the amount of money that teachers spend out of their own pockets to make their children’s learning environments live up to their own, and to kids’ expectations. Donors Choose also solves a frequently cited dilemma about non-profits – people often want to act locally, but most organizations that they can easily find are more national or global. But on the website, you might even find a well-deserving school or classroom close-by that you can help in other ways than just donating your time. And everyone loves a thank you – which the teachers and students agree to send to supporters of their cause. Speaking from experience, there’s nothing more gratifying that receiving a card created by a grateful teacher and appreciative kids after providing them with something that truly enhances their learning environment.
Teens Turning Green
There’s no question that kids, tweens and teens are capable of compassion. But what we like about teens Turning Green is its competitive spirit! Games and contests (not of the random winner variety) appeal to youth who are often up to challenges. Like dieting (speaking of New Year’s resolutions), doing good is often easier when it involved a few friends. And these events – like a 30 day sustainability challenge or a “green your dorm room” contest - are also chic. It’s no surprise – this organization isn’t run by adults for kids, but was actually founded by students striving to change the world.
In 2014, we think youth brands can give as much as they get. We recommend you follow the lead (and fuel the good work) these organizations are doing – let’s begin!
Over the past few weeks, kids and families across the country have experienced their first snowfall of the year. While we were sledding, donning snowsuits, building snowmen, and sipping hot chocolate, we were reminded of one of our favorite picture books about playing in the snow: Ezra Jack Keats’s The Snowy Day.
The Snowy Day is the story of Peter, a young boy living in the city, who wakes up to find snow covering EVERYTHING. Soon, he’s out of his “jammies” and out in the wide world all by himself. He knocks the snow from trees, makes snow angels, and climbs a hill pretending to be a “mountain climber.” After a long day of exploring, Peter returns home to his mom, a hot bath, and a good night’s sleep. What can marketers and content creators learn from this simple but elegant story?
- The simplest pleasures can be the most fun. In The Snowy Day, something as simple as your feet provides a wealth of possibilities. Peter walks through the snow with his toes pointed out, and then in. He then drags his feet to create long, unbroken lines in the snow. An average stick becomes a toy for Peter and he’s able to reach up higher than he normally could and smack the snow off a tree. And that’s all Peter needs to do before moving on to his next adventure. The simple act of sliding down a hill is so much fun, Peter does it repeatedly. It’s easy to think that today’s youth are too jaded to enjoy the “basics.” But one snowfall shows that there are plenty of young-at-heart activities that attract kids, tweens and even teens and their parents!
- Being alone can be fun too. In a world in which everything is social, remember that on occasion, kids want and need time to themselves. Without any adults around, Peter is in control of his day. He revels in recounting his tale to his mother, but he had almost every adventure on his own. It isn’t until the final page of the book that we see him with a friend. Once he’s mastered his environment, he’s ready to bring a playmate along for the ride.
- The outdoors can still be magical to kids. For Peter, the city is a playground. He never stays in one spot for too long. He wanders through city streets, past buildings and street lamps. But no matter what city elements are around him, Peter always turns to the snow. The snow gives him something to walk on, something to slide on, something to build with, and something to create with. Just before returning home, Peter creates a snowball and puts it in his coat pocket “for tomorrow.” Peter wants to bring the snow home and inside with him. Like, arguably, the other greatest children’s book of the past century, Where the Wild Things Are, the hero is alone in the “wild,” both making it his own and showing how at home he feels within it.
No snow where you are? Try out “snow wonder” - we double-dog dare you. And please let us know what you think!
Fictional newscaster Ron Burgundy (played by comedian Will Ferrell) is all over the place these days. In recent weeks, he’s been selling Dodge Durangos, guest hosting the news in North Dakota, and interviewing Peyton Manning on ESPN. All of these appearances, done with complete earnest; are of course, in the service of stirring up excitement over Paramount’s upcoming Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues.
We’ve been admiring his antics and just dying for a chance to connect this clearly adult marketing campaign to a kid, tween and teen topic. On last week's Saturday Night Live, we thought we had our entry point (read: excuse!) when Will Ferrell interrupted One Direction. But Ferrell only appeared as himself, not as Ron Burgundy. Well, this really caught our attention and made us ask, "So, can youth marketers learn from the 'Ron Burgundy Approach?'" Answer: Absolutely! Here are just a few of our favorite lessons:
Ron doesn’t create culture, he’s capitalizes on it. As many youth brands have learned (the hard way), it’s difficult for a brand to become the center of youth’s attention. Ron Burgundy’s (Verified!) Twitter account is full of references to his public appearances, but also a few thoughts on Miley Cyrus. He’s interviewed Peyton Manning during football season, (albeit asking him questions about his take on tacklers from the 70s). Instead of attempting to draw attention to himself through creating big events, he’s showing up in the spots where we’re already looking. Brands sometimes worry about being overshadowed by a bigger brand or event, but Burgundy shows that there’s a balance of showing up and breaking in to these existing situations that gets consumers paying attention.
Ron respects his fans. Ron isn’t only appearing in spaces of satire – he’s also willing to make waves in waters where he wouldn’t typically swim. Last week Emerson College’s School of Communication was renamed The Ron Burgundy School of Communication (for 24 hours). Burgundy spoke to students about the changes he was going make (everyone gets a car upon graduation) and the difficulties of reporting the facts of a story (Don’t have facts? Make something up). Burgundy might be showing up in big venues, but he’s not afraid to throw some memorable grassroots moments in the mix. AND, he recognizes that this kind of marketing requires give and take – make some noise and be generous with acknowledging those who buy in. Youth love stars who tweet the people who spoof them. They appreciate the back and forth (that only social media allows) when a star starts a meme and lets the fans take over. Youth love the juxtaposition of big stars in small places (remember kids often feel that their world is invisible, so showing that a star remembers the little guys goes a long way with youth).
Ron makes moments, not media buys. Ron Burgundy’s campaign looks different than it did in 2004 because the social landscape has changed. Ron still shows up on TV – he’s not relying only on being “discovered” serendipitously. But importantly, he’s making moments that matter. Regardless of how much Paramount spend on ads, the views that Burgundy has gotten on YouTube, on replays, on clips, and shows have mattered more. Many youth brands worry that they don’t have budgets big enough for TV. But keep in mind that a great creative idea and clever execution can multiply your marketing.
Ron invites, he doesn’t exclude. Especially in youth culture, it’s easy to lose your audience by assuming they have more insider knowledge than they do. This is particularly true when your market is made up of multiple age groups. But you don’t have to know anything about Olympic Curling – or Burgundy himself - to find Ron Burgundy’s coverage of the Canadian Olympic Curling Finals funny—it just is. Fans of the first Anchorman film can laugh along with teens and tweens who may be unfamiliar with Ron Burgundy.
Regardless of how this approach increases what were already sure to be sound box office sales, Ron Burgundy continues to provide an example for subverting typical advertising approaches. In the immortal words of Burgundy, “You stay classy, YouthBeat reader.”
Just after Thanksgiving this year, many households around the country welcomed a houseguest. It wasn’t an aunt or uncle from across the country. It wasn’t a college friend with their kids in tow. It was an Elf. And he showed up on a shelf.
The Elf on the Shelf tradition can be traced back to 2004, but has taken hold in households as if it had been around for decades. For the uninitiated, the Elf on the Shelf (whose story has been told through a self-published book written by mother and daughter team Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, and later turned into a holiday TV special) serves as Santa’s special envoy in the homes (and increasingly in the classrooms) of children everywhere. The Elf, assigned to the child, watches on Santa’s behalf, eager to catch good behavior or naughtiness! The child gets to name the Elf, but beyond that, the Elf decides where he’ll appear each morning. These Elves can get pretty creative, as shown in this video featuring the 125 best Elf ideas. We think there are lessons to learn from this phenomenon, which returned youth’s attention to the magic of the season just at a time when the getting of gifts often garners more attention than showing Santa you’re “good.”
- Don’t underestimate the power of surprise. While the Elf on the Shelf might have been compelling as Santa’s steadfast seer, he matters more because he’s “new” each day. Consider ways to keep the surprise and delight into your everyday offerings.
- Remember the power of being good. Young kids are obsessed with the rules, and interested in good versus bad. But often, this timeless trope is twisted – we forget that children want recognition for their good behavior as much as they seek to avoid getting in trouble for the bad. Find ways for your brand to catch them acting their best behavior. See Sprout’s wonderful campaign for kindness as an example. http://www.sproutonline.com/kindness-counts
- Keep it simple. With promotions in general, complexity is sometime mistaken for depth. The Elf on the Shelf premise might have meaning, but it does it through the most basic of mechanisms. Make sure your own “events” make participation and the pay-off as easy as possible.
- Build on existing traditions. The Elf on the Shelf may have been a novel idea, but it leveraged the legends of elves, Santa and the naughty list to keep the communication simple, and to ensure a place in the home during the holidays.
- Get parents in on the action. While we don’t necessarily have an inside track on elves’ criteria for choosing their holiday homes, we can imagine that they prefer the ones where parents get involved in the fun. Remember to make your promotions not simply parent-friendly, but make them exciting and enjoyable for mom and dad.