When Your Audience Outgrows You

Kids outgrow everything from clothes to books to the Web sites they visit. One concern of many parents today is age compression or the "Growing Up Too Soon" (GUTS) syndrome. Childhood development experts decry hyper-sexualized fashions, movies, etc., while parents want to keep childhoods intact.


Meanwhile, kids continue to grow up. And when they do, they move on. Look at some favorite Web sites. While Webkinz and Club Penguin offer pseudo-friending features, kids today want more than just a collection of casual games. MySpace and Facebook are doing a better job of controlling access, but preteens are definitely tempted to sneak around the safeguards the sites and their parents put in place -- and they do. To parents, MySpace is the online equivalent of the belly shirt and R-rated movie. It just isn't designed, monitored or controlled the way a COPPA-compliant site for tweens should be.

Web sites for kids are often just a collection of casual games. When kids cross over from child (6-8) to preteen/tween (9-12), they are looking for more connection from their Web sites. Suddenly, it isn't enough to complete the puzzle or pop the balloons. Even though most kids say their primary activity online is casual gaming, the most successful sites must offer more depth.

There is a roiling cauldron of kids who are stuck between kid-oriented sites and grownup sites. Tired of what they see as babyish, they are not yet ready for the "Wild West" of true social networking. And they are looking for these more "grown-up" experiences younger and younger. Peers are one of the most often cited influences on a child's interests. One older sibling or more advanced child can "infect" a whole cohort. In our house, the elder sib played with Webkinz to age ten; the younger sib (age six) quickly tired of the site, and has a stated and demonstrated interest in "other things."

To engage with the latter group, marketers must first capture their attention, then their imagination, then their loyalty; all this without alienating parents who want "more" for their kids but are wary of anything that smacks of shortening the distance between childhood and the teen years. Here are some ideas:

  • The casual game approach works to attract visitors but won't hold them for long. Link-building programs are often based on a new game, but you need a constant stream of new activities to keep tweens interested.
  • Is the look age-appropriate? Cartoons and animation can be sophisticated or babyish. The tween radar is highly attuned to "too young" and will quickly move on if they feel their younger sib might also be attracted.
  • Is the content fresh and current? Does it have ties to the next big thing or the latest craze? (In other words, when did you know that Hannah Montana was "so over" for tweens?)
  • Is there real depth? Are the characters multi-dimensional? Can the site's visitors interact with them? Do they seem more like peers than toys?
  • How do your visitors reap "psychic income"? Today's tween has been raised on a steady diet of social consciousness. How can they help each other or those less fortunate?
  • Keep it safe without being intrusive. Be COPPA-compliant without being in their face about it. This means no Personally Identifying Information (PII), inappropriate language, topics or images while allowing tweens the freedom to explore their own creative natures. Drop down message menus might be safe but they are instantly dismissed -- "no fun."

And, if you can't deliver the tween experience on your kid site, think of those outgrowing your site as the feeder system for another site -- either yours or a partner's. It's not a loss, it's an opportunity.

Editor's note: If you'd like to contribute to this newsletter, contact Nina Lentini.

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2 comments about "When Your Audience Outgrows You ".
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  1. Perry Donham from KidPub Press , February 24, 2009 at 2:08 p.m.

    I've run a site for kids ages 8 to 15 (www.kidpub.com) for the past fourteen years...kids who were members at age 12 back in 1995 are now in their mid twenties. KidPub publishes books and stories written by children.

    My experience has been that I have about a one-and-a-half-year relationship with a majority of the users on the site. Old-timers help the new members learn the ropes, which helps develop their self-esteem, and eventually drift away as the new members becomes the old hands.

    We make KidPub look 'grown-up' and a bit serious, which appeals to our audience of kids who love to write. The design emphasizes the creative writing contributed by our members, with 'fun' things like forums, chat, and news appearing on secondary pages. We use a development site that is open to the kids to let them help with site design. In fact, a lot of our features were suggested by the kids.

    The result is fierce loyalty among the members. Even after the kids get a bit older and move on to other things, they tend to come back to periodically say hello to the current users of the site.

    It's been fascinating over the past decade and a half to watch the unending flow of new faces on KidPub. I believe that there's a real need for a web experience that acknowledges that kids have a lot to offer, and that avoid flashy cartoons and gimmicks to distract a child long enough to get a fwe clicks from them. At KidPub we give the kids a way to share their creative writing, then stand back and say, 'Show us what you can do.'

  2. Kimberly Grustas , March 4, 2009 at 9:17 a.m.

    I agree with your observation in that most entertainment sites for tweens are few and far between. I own a natural skin care company for girls, Good For You Girls. (www.goodforyougirls.com) While we do not offer entertainment on our site we do have an audience of girls 8-14. We have a special page for girls and would like to offer links to other sites that we feel are good for girls. We have had much difficulty finding sites that are inline with our message that we would feel comfortable recommending. Anyone who knows of any, please feel free to contact me at kim@goodforyougirls.com
    And Thank You for this post.

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