To recap this series of articles thus far, we began by looking at the extraordinarily crowded landscape for children’s media, and young audiences’ surprisingly coherent and thoughtful management of overwhelming options’ frustration and opportunities.
The second post looked at how those audiences find new content and how IP owners can help promote that discovery and sharing with others.
Here, we look for guidance on building and keeping audiences from past and current innovators who tweaked patterns and algorithms to distinguish themselves from the pack. It’s a long and honorable tradition: in the early days of cable TV, Ted Turner tried something unique, starting TBS programs at 5 minutes past the hour and half hour. Long before the advent of the smart TV, or even the electronic program guide, people relied on print to find their favorite shows – the TV Guide. By time-shifting the shows, TBS titles got a line to themselves in the schedule, standing apart from the competition. Moreover, it served a TV habit that’s still with us today – short patience with shows that don’t engage. Any viewer ready to abandon a show at the post-opening commercial break hadn’t missed anything on TBS.
Today’s tweaks and hacks are mostly about owning a predictable moment in the day, that solves a problem for the child or parent.
Preschool series like “In the Night Garden” or the new “Moon and Me” are designed for bedtime wind-down – “snuggleware” for lack of a better term. More broadly, the animated versions of Julia Donaldson’s books have come to define Christmas viewing in the UK, in the way that “Peanuts” specials owned Halloween and Christmas in the US.
Fortnite is the predictable gathering place for tweens after school, just as Club Penguin was for a long time before it. It’s like having “appointment viewing” that’s always available – a home base where you know what (and who) to expect to meet there, kept fresh with pop-up events and parties (Club Penguin) and renewing “seasons” with unique skins, dances, weapons, environments and licensing tie-ins. The current-day difference is that with connectivity, kids can not only communicate about the game, but also about their real-world lives.
YouTube influencers also game the algorithm. Once they’ve put up content, it’s available anytime, but many of the most popular YouTubers (on the advice of the platform) release new content at specific times of day. In Dubit’s research, we find that young people will wait for their favorite gamer’s walkthroughs rather than going searching for someone else’s.
Connecting with “their” YouTuber often feels private – we visited a young girl in Colorado who emphasizes the 1:1 relationship by getting under a blanket to watch her favorite’s videos. Radio was always good at making a mass medium personal; on TV, Fred Rogers and the Blue’s Clues presenters did it better than anyone else.
Does your IP demand a mass audience, or can you be profitable by super-serving (or creating that individual connection with) a more narrow set of fans? One of my favorite Broadway songs is titled “I’d rather be nine people’s favorite thing than 100 people’s ninth favorite thing.” When everything was on a single playing field – the broadcast schedule – the key metric was eyeballs. Today, it’s engagement and passion (Netflix looks at duration, repeat viewing and bingeing as “audience joy”).
When it comes to engagement, kids want it all. They love behind-the-scenes footage, outtakes, clips and features like how to draw the characters in their favorite animated series. Steve Jobs said “if you don’t cannibalize yourself, someone else will.” If you want to control the quality of these offshoots, manage the distribution and linked connections across the brand, and own any revenue, IP owners need to manage the full universe of resources – to “cannibalize themselves.”
Each of these adaptations can be reduced to a basic principle: in a media environment where everything competes against everything (Netflix’ Reed Hastings say “we compete with Fortnite…and we lose”), make your content simple to find, intuitive to access, inviting to join, and easy to share. Know more than just who your target audience is, know where they are, when they most need or want what you have to offer, what devices and platforms are accessible to them at that time, and why what you offer fulfills their immediate needs.