Teenagers weren't invented until 1944, if you believe Jon Savage's new book, Teenage: The Creation of Youth Culture. The concept worked out so well for marketers, it was inevitable that the anointment of tweens would follow. And what a joyful discovery they've been. The 20 million or so U.S. tween-agers directly spend about $35 billion annually and others spend three times more than that on their behalf.
Tweens, those people 8 to 12 years old, formerly known as children, are not merely mini-teenagers - although a trip to the dauntingly well-merchandised Mary-KateandAshley.com might make you think so.
This tender demographic shares some characteristics with its older siblings, but also has a mind and heart of its own. The current crop is the progeny of Generation X, but they're a lot sweeter than their sires.
While Xers are considered cynical, disaffected and hostile to the values of their own parents, today's tweens are still quite attached to theirs. They look to them for reassurance, advice - and help with shopping, according to Samantha Skey, executive vice president of strategic marketing for Alloy Media + Marketing.
"Tweens are a wonderful paradox: incredibly ripe for conversation and appropriately protected by standards for advertising," says Skey. Alloy is a full-service marketing firm that operates a multi-platform ad network targeting youth.
"These parents are more like friends with their kids, more trusted advisors," says Mike Fassino, director of Weekly Reader Research, the research arm of the kids' publishing house. "What goes on is joint decision-making."
Because of this close relationship between tweens and their parents, marketers should double their messages, reaching Mom, Dad and kids via different online channels.
Today's middle-schoolers are beyond digitally savvy. Think about it: The oldest tweens were born the year Netscape went public. "Technology and the Internet are no cooler to them than indoor plumbing," Fassino says.
Nevertheless, because of the strictures of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, as well as parents' own protectiveness, tweens can be one of the hardest demographics to reach online. Nick.com and Disney.com are huge with them, but it's difficult to get much reach online, according to Shelly Hirsch, CEO of Beacon Media Group, a kid-centric media agency.
"There's no site that's a must-have," Hirsch says. "There's no unique Internet audience for this age group - and TV is more efficient."
He's not as bearish on interactive media as that sounds. Five years ago, he says, television would be at the top of his planning grid, followed by magazines, and then radio. "Now, all of a sudden, I'm seeing a shift," he says. "I still look at television as the primary medium for reach, but the Internet is No. 2 for immersion. The Internet has displaced print and moved radio a notch back."
Immersive brand experiences that last longer than the 15- or 30-second spot engage those impressionable little minds - hopefully with some content or skill-building along with the marketing.
"You can certainly build brand loyalty among children, but do it in a way that's engaging, appropriate, entertaining and provides some opportunity for learning and personal growth," says Adele Schwartz, research director at Stars for Kidz, a provider of youth-oriented research and web development.
Mom is often sitting next to her tween, or acting as the kids' online concierge, seeking out safe and educational content and Web sites. Providing high-quality branded experiences online makes teachers and parents co-marketers, Schwartz says. "If they see this is a Web site that's safe and that there's learning involved, they will encourage kids to access the site the first time and revisit it multiple times."
This doesn't come cheap. Schwartz and Hirsch agree it takes more than $1 million to develop a site that's exciting, constantly fresh, fun and educational.
Games are one of the best ways to get and keep tweens' attention. They may not realize an advertiser has sponsored a game - but that doesn't mean they don't notice the brand. When Weekly Reader Research asked its national panel of 100,000 kids about product placement in games, the gamers didn't realize this was advertising. They thought the game developer was trying to make the game more realistic. Ads are an accepted part of their world.
Girls love online games as much as boys; it turns out that game developers simply hadn't tried very hard to create for them.
Another hot trend is converging real-life products with Web-based environments. The Groovy Girls brand from Manhattan Toy offers entrée into a virtual world. Groovy Girls dolls are "confident, spirited and funky." But you don't have to buy one to join the party at GroovyGirls.com, where girls can create avatars, pick hairstyles and clothing, create their own environments and meet online with others.
"The site doesn't sell anything, but it provides fans an opportunity to interact with the brand in a different, more meaningful way," says Hugh Kennedy, associate marketing manager. But with more than 1.7 million registered users, he says that doll sales have gone up since the site launched in 2005.
Zizzle, maker of an array of colorful tweenie products, is launching Spotz, a series of craftsy kits that let you personalize jewelry, bags and accessories with images from the Internet or magazines or wherever. The five-year-old company has partnered with both Nickelodeon and Disney to create co-branded microsites where kids can grab thousands of images to incorporate into Spotz.
"We see this as a marriage of toy and online," says Zizzle CMO Marc Rosenberg. "The Internet enhances the play." Kids will be able to show off their Spotz online, and do some light social networking: They'll be able to chat with the four "Spotz girls," play games, blog and watch commercials online.
Zizzle tapped into another hot trend with its marketing for Pirates of the Caribbean: At World's End. Kids can use codes they find on promotional coins to unlock special movie content online. Zizzle has the license for toys for the Pirates series, and to juice up demand for model ships, swords and action figures, in advance of the May premiere, it "You'll never see us doing banner ads," Rosenberg sniffs. "It doesn't do justice to the product."
The Pirates' promos and toys are a winner with tween boys, a segment he says is woefully underserved online. "If it's not a boy-tailored environment, you're wasting money," Rosenberg says. "The dollar amounts that need to be spent are huge, but the return can be as good or better than TV - if you do it right." partnered with Toys R Us for an online contest, "21 Days of Pirate's Gold." A treasure hunt on Nick.com lets kids try to win toys.