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The Golden Rules of Marketing to the Next Generation

Children have their own languages, their own desires—and their own government ad regulations. Don’t risk fines, or worse, appearing uncool.
September 09, 2015

You may be a responsible and ethical adult. But if your business markets products or services to children in a careless manner, you could just get sent to the corner for a time out.

If children have made up your business's core audience for some time now, you're probably well aware of the rules you need to follow when marketing to them. But if you've just launched your business or your company is expanding and trying to reach children, you may not be so informed. "You can get smacked by some significant fines if you don't abide by the rules," says Christopher McGuire, vice president of Slant, a full-service marketing agency.

You also risk never reaching your audience if you market your children's product or service without thinking things through. If you have a startup that markets to children or you own an established business that plans to cater to kids soon, keep the following three guidelines in mind.

1. Know the Regulations That Apply to Advertising to Kids

As McGuire noted, there are rules, enforced by the Federal Trade Commission's (FTC's) Division of Advertising Practices. The FTC's mission is to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive advertising practices as well as advertising and marketing that may promote poor health, an unsafe environment or economic pain.

And while those guidelines sound ridiculously obvious, you could run an ad that shows a child doing something reckless with a product you're selling. Back in the 1970s, for instance, the FTC banned a TV ad because it showed a little girl closely watching a steaming pan of rice cooking on the stove, and it exposed children to an "unreasonable risk of harm" if other children imitated the girl.

Unfortunately, the rules surrounding ads aren't always consistently enforced. Knowing what not to include in your marketing campaign is more art than science. Your safest recourse is likely to speak with an attorney who specializes in promotional law, especially if your ad campaign involves some sort of contest or sweepstakes. An attorney could help steer you away from some of the potential pitfalls of advertising to children, such as running afoul of the Children's Online Privacy Protection Act, also known as COPPA.

McGuire says he once had a client who learned about COPPA the hard way. "Before coming to us," McGuire says, "our client had a loyalty program. Kids were signing up, but this client wasn't following the COPPA rules. The FTC came to them, and asked for their financials, so they could come up with a proper fine."

Fortunately, those situations seem few and far between. If you're running a program and asking kids to sign up for it, for example, McGuire says, "You can include an age gate on your website where the customer has to submit their birthdate in order to identify those who are under 13, so you can make sure to get the proper parental consent."

According to the FTC, whether the advertising is online or offline, the most important guideline when marketing to children is that the ad be truthful. For more information about truth-in-advertising to children and advertising in general, see the FTC's helpful list of FAQs for small businesses.

2. Learn to Speak the Language of Children

Figuring out just how to approach a younger audience can be challenging and depends a lot on the age of your audience. You don't want to mislead or talk down to the children you're marketing to—after all, they're young, not stupid.

With that in mind, never underestimate your youthful audience. "Younger audiences have a higher demand threshold for authenticity and accountability," says Brian Selander, executive vice president of The Whistle Network, a sports cross-platform media network aimed at kids ages 7 to 17. Thanks to never having lived in a world without search engines, Selander adds, "They've grown up being able to find out anything about anyone or any brand."

You also may want to try to avoid peppering slang or pop culture references throughout your marketing prose if you don't really know what they mean; get it wrong, and your credibility can be shot. "They're particularly wary of fake cool," Selander says. "They can see when a brand or creator is changing their language or message in an effort to connect with them."

When it comes to marketing to someone very young, you not only want to be honest—after all, their parents are watching you—you want to consider not going over their heads. "It's important to understand the psychology and emotion of children," says Suzanne So, co-founder of Joy Sprouts, an education tech business that works with content providers such as the BBC, Oxford University Press and Garfield (the cartoon cat) to produce games, learn about children's behavior and improve their development.

The younger they are, the smaller their world, So says. So focus on things like home, pets and maybe school. As So explains, "We have to try and avoid language and context that's outside of their world."

3. Talk to Kids About Your Business

If you're selling products and services to the children's market, perhaps the smartest thing you can do is talk to your target market. You'll learn a lot, including how they spend their time and where they hang out online and off, which could help you decide where you might market to them.

For those who are 13 and older, Facebook is still big, but other resources are also growing, like Tumblr. "These are very different platforms," says Bobbie Carlton, who owns Carlton PR and Marketing. Carlton has several clients who sell products and services aimed at kids, and before starting her own business, she was the head of marketing for Beacon Street Girls, a book series for preteen girls.

"The first thing I advise any client [with a children's-based business] is to find yourself a kid," Carlton says, "and if you don't have one handy, you'd better find a focus group."

But not just any focus group will do: "You need to make sure the focus group is representative of the children you're selling to," Carlton says, recalling how she was once excited when a friend offered up her daughter and her daughter's friends as a focus group. Once Carlton sat down with them, however, she realized she was soliciting opinions from homeschooled girls, which may have been fine for another product, but the characters in Beacon Street Girls had lives far different from girls who are homeschooled.

And while focus groups can provide critical feedback, So advises you not to rely exclusively on your focus groups. "Every child is unique," So says. "Focus group results serve as a reference, but don't count on them too much." Instead, collect information from a variety of sources, evaluate the data, and make the best choices based on your business's goals.

The bottom line is, if you're marketing to children, you'll probably be more successful if you treat your target market as individuals who don't like being tricked and who deserve your respect. That's right—treat the kids like adults, and you may have a winning strategy on your hands.

The information contained in this article is for generalized informational and educational purposes only and is not designed to substitute for, or replace, a professional opinion about any particular business or situation or judgment about the risks or appropriateness of any legal financial or business strategy or approach for any specific business or situation. THIS ARTICLE IS NOT A SUBSTITUTE FOR PROFESSIONAL LEGAL ADVICE. The views and opinions expressed in authored articles on OPEN Forum represent the opinion of their author and do not necessarily represent the views, opinions and/or judgments of American Express Company or any of its affiliates, subsidiaries or divisions (including, without limitation, American Express OPEN). American Express makes no representation as to, and is not responsible for, the accuracy, timeliness, completeness or reliability of any opinion, advice or statement made in this article.

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This article was originally published on September 3, 2014.

Photo: Getty Images