Last year I co-authored a book called “Understanding Digital Marketing“. It’s basically a foundation for businesses and marketers on how to harness the internet to sell your products and services and reach out to customers, which of course has very little to do with this column… or does it?
Researching the book meant I had to delve deep into the world of the online marketer, and increasingly the mainstream marketing masses who are adopting electronic marketing strategies to reach an increasingly “wired” customer base. And guess which segment of today’s society is among the most connected? That’s right… our children — especially as they enter their teens!
It’s frightening how much spending power teenagers seem to have these days, and with a ready, peer influenced market spending lots of time online, you can bet that marketers are reaching out across cyberspace and reaching into your wallet through your children.
Marketing to young people is nothing new of course… companies, especially larger brands with massive advertising budgets and seemingly limitless resources, have been targeting children for years. Television adverts for toys, games, fast food, snacks and confectionery do an excellent job of appealing to a younger audience, applying indirect pressure on parents to spend, spend, spend.
But there are a few important differences for parents to consider as mainstream marketing leaps the digital divide and brands start to engage with our children online.
- What are they looking at?: When children are sitting in front of the television, listening to the radio or reading a particular magazine parents are generally aware of the kind of advertising they are being exposed to, but do you really know where your children like to “hang out” online, and whether the sort of targeted advertising they’re being influenced by is appropriate?
- How much information are they sharing? Unlike traditional channels like TV, Radio and Print, online marketing is a two-way-street. This is not a broadcast medium, it’s a specifically targeted conversation crafted with the marketers’ goal in mind. How much information is your child sharing with the brands they engage with online?
- Low barriers to entry mean more brands: compared to traditional media online marketing opportunities are still relatively cheap, and because young people are volunteering more information online campaigns can often be focussed to reach a much narrower and more responsive audience. It means more businesses can afford to engage online, which means teens are likely to encounter a far broader range of advertising than they typically do in other media.
- No geographical boundaries: the internet transcends geography — so depending on where they go online, children can be exposed to advertising and marketing messages from around the globe — advertising that isn’t necessarily governed by the rules and conventions that parents take for granted in their own country.
- It’s not just the computer: it’s very easy for parents to assume the computer is the hub of their child’s interaction with the online world, but increasingly mobile devices (like phones, MP3 players and organisers) can hook up wirelessly to the internet. Home games consoles too are often connected… and the in-game advertising your children see when they play the latest games are often streamed in real time from the internet in response to actions taken in the game.
There’s nothing inherently sinister about marketing to children online — in fact, if it’s done responsibly more targeted, measurable, open and accountable marketing can be a good thing. As parents we need to be aware of changes in our children’s use of media, of the way businesses are using digital channels to reach out to them, and the potential impact it can have. Ultimately it’s our job to shield them from harm — in the real world, and the virtual one.