For example, a fifth grader who loves Harry Potter knows him in many guises -- books, movies/DVDs, videogames, Web games and fan fiction. She accepts the fact that he looks different in various genres (e.g. 2-D Flash animation on the Web, fully animated 3-D on a console game, flat art on a baseball cap or on the cover of a book). This prototypical fifth grader intuitively senses the essence of the brand, recognizing substance independent of style, and she uses her media of choice whenever she feels like visiting Hogwarts.
Tweens' assumption of user choice and control is essential to keep in mind when trying to engage them through media. Key considerations:
Let Me Play!
When I evaluate a proposed user experience for tweens, I hear the words "let me play!" Being heard -- feeling grown-up, wanting one's voice to be respected -- is a core driver at this developmental stage. So whenever possible, don't push content at them; pull content from them. This active relationship -- a sense that the user is part of the authoring process -- is critical in creating deeply engaging media experiences for tweens.
Enable Social Interaction
Tweens are inherently social beings, focused on defining themselves in a social, peer-driven orbit, whether in the real world or online. At Kidz Bop, we've learned a great deal about social interaction from our tween users as we've continued to refine our Web site. Most striking was an organic evolution of user communication, even before we'd introduced the tools for moderated, safe (i.e. COPPA compliant) communication. They took advantage of the fact that we enable (and moderate) video uploads to create their own video profiles, to give each other video shout- outs, and even to create games (including a robust, viral round of "Kidz Bop Tag"). Having the opportunity to present themselves, collect friends, or form affinity groups through shared interests resonates deeply for this age group.
Enable Multi-Media Interaction
Children under 12 constitute one of the fastest-growing segments of mobile technology users in the U.S., according to a recent report from the Joan Ganz Cooney Center called "Pockets of Potential: Using Mobile Technologies to Promote Children's Learning." One of the key conclusions of the study is that "Mobile devices are an integral part of children's lives and they are here to stay. Our national debate must shift from whether to use these devices to support learning, to understanding how and when they might best be used."
Whether the end product is educational or not, every production process should be focused on capturing digital assets that can be used to create experiences across an array of content delivery devices, including mobile.
A Sophisticated Experience In A Kid-Friendly Space
Kids also told us that they were looking for a sophisticated Web experience in a kid-friendly environment. Tweens are very much aware of adult sites like Facebook and YouTube, yet they are technically prohibited from registering for these social networking/content sharing sites if they are younger than 13. Parents are also leery of allowing kids to frequent these environments (with good reason). Tweens want social networking experiences for themselves, in an environment that feels like it is for them. The days of over-designed Web destinations that present a jumble of images in primary colors that scream "this is for kids" are over. Clear, appealing imagery that is straightforward to navigate and which empowers the user is the kind of sophisticated functionality they are looking for.
Authenticity Of Content Trumps Traditional Production Value
When it comes to creating narrative content, I periodically find myself struggling with production professionals who are obsessed with maintaining adequate "production value" (whatever that is). For the young consumer, appeal is much less about perfect images and all about an authentic voice and point of view. Classic YouTube clips like "Numa Numa" (teen on a Web cam lip syncing to a song by the band O-Zone, 24 million views), or "Urban Ninja" (Jackie Chan wannabe filmed by his teenage friends, 26 million views) are endlessly entertaining for this age group, and the appeal is in the content, not the production value. Focus on making your content compelling and affordable to produce for new media outlets that have not yet developed an adequate monetization/funding model.
High Tech, High Touch
The more high tech the world around us becomes, the more our inner selves yearn for "high touch." Tweens, in particular, are growing up in a noisy, cluttered media environment with a cacophony of brands shouting for their attention. The more that we can make an experience personal to the individual child, the more of a high touch experience we are delivering. The Internet, with opportunities for registration, personalization and social networking, is particularly well-suited to reach out and touch tweens' hearts, minds and inner clowns. This is the era of user choice and control, and given options, the 6-11 audience will choose to be recognized and rewarded for its own unique qualities.
Noted psychologist Erik Erikson wrote that children experience an identity crisis of sorts as they approach adolescence. What bemused adults often describe as "going through a phase" is in fact an exploration of new ways of thinking and behaving -- considering new ideas, new groups of friends, new ways of looking at the world. As we create media experiences for children ages 6-11, we are offering them opportunities to invent themselves through play, and to imagine their possible, future selves. The kind of experiences that we create can enable children to imagine themselves in ways that will positively impact our future. That's the beauty of working with this audience -- their optimism and newfound capabilities mean the future is limitless.