"Snakes and Ladders" - Kids’ Pathways to Content (Part 1)

David Kleeman

In today’s crowded media environment, children’s pathways to content may look less like a yellow brick road and more like a game of Snakes and Ladders (Chutes and Ladders for my fellow Americans). By around age 8, a young person likely has access to at least four devices (from among smartphone, tablet, television, computer and game console), has 3-5 favourite brands or stories, and is getting and sharing content recommendations from a wide range of word-of-mouth and media sources.

Yet, when Dubit looks at kids’ choices and behaviours around technology and media, play and exploration, patterns begin to emerge. We’ve written often about “emotional scheduling,” the idea that children are more intuitive and thoughtful in organising and choosing content than might have been thought, and how their decisions are driven by the ebb and flow of their daily schedules, plus their moods and needs.

This column offers an overview of how to straighten the path to discovery (and onward to engagement). In the coming weeks, I’ll explore three more dimensions of the challenge:

  • how to support discovery;
  • how to retain audiences by separating yourself from the competition; and
  • content trends that need to be understood when developing for kids.

We begin from a bit of irony: when the internet became fully embedded in people’s lives, and when mobile media put its power in our pockets, everyone thought the role of the scheduler was dead. Kids would watch what they wanted, when they wanted, where they wanted. Value would shift from the channel (in the 90s, you were “Nick kid,” a “Disney kid,” or a “Cartoon Network kid”) to the specific IP. Democracy would reign and there would be a wealth of diverse new content that wouldn’t have gotten past network development in the past (not to mention network content licensed in the hope of incremental revenue).

Much of that happened, and the result was young people paralysed by an overwhelming ocean of content and poor navigation tools. As a result, recently the role of commissioner/scheduler has resurged to help kids manage their “paradox of choice.” Kids and families don’t just want content made for them, they want it curated and made visible. Parents want to feel they’re choosing content made by people who care about and for their children. In the best cases, the resulting recommendation engines don’t just offer up more of what the viewer has already consumed (leading to regression to the mean) but suggest content kids didn’t yet know they wanted. Network TV promotion did this, as well, but more scattershot, as it didn’t have the benefit of previous viewing data.

Not that any of this is easy. Dubit Trends still finds almost two-thirds of children worldwide say they have trouble finding the content they want. Platforms and channels continue to proliferate, and young fans’ favourite content probably exists across them all, with episodes here, supplementary videos there, games in yet another place, and perhaps an app that doesn’t quite bring it all together.

Everything competes with everything. Television no longer battles for attention only with what’s on other networks: Netflix’ recent shareholder letter noted “we compete with (and lose to) Fortnite more than HBO.”

Social media and casual gaming are part of the equation. “Candy Crush” continues to show up near the top of young people’s favourite brands; the ephemeral nature of its play allows it to sneak into moments that might previously have been filled with other activities.

Physical toys can’t be ignored, either. Once children get their first smartphone, technology becomes the “toy” of choice for many, but we’re also seeing increasing mergers of digital and physical play that are buoying the toy industry.

Traditional TV viewing is declining, but overall video viewing is rising, thanks to streaming media and mobile viewing. A recent Dubit study uncovered that only one in ten searches by a child for video content ends with a kids linear channel on a TV screen.

In subsequent columns, we’ll look further into the reasons behind these phenomena, and show ways to banish the Snakes, climb the Ladders, and straighten the path to fandom.

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