What Can You Give COVID-19’s Homebound Kids? Control and Engagement

David Kleeman

My social media feed is filled with messages recommending media content and activities to do with children who are homebound because of COVID-19. Some come from parents themselves, some from bloggers, and some from content creators. Many of you have added new works, supplemented existing content with use guides, and knocked down paywalls. Some authors and illustrators are doing live readings and drawing sessions.

Based on Dubit’s research and models, here’s something else you might give your young audience: some control over your IP.

Our “Fanatomy” model looks at the relationship between children and their favorite stories, characters and brands as being like a tennis match. You “serve” – that is, you give them the vision you’ve crafted, whether as a film, program, video, story, game or app. Your audience then “returns” – communicating back to you their own creative adaptations and interpretations of your work.

You have the option to accept and integrate some of your fans’ ideas or now. If you do, you’ve begun to volley, and the match is on. Your audience appreciates that you are listening to them and keeping an open mind about the brand universe. You, meanwhile, have opened a line of communication and trust that can be invaluable not just for creative development, but for marketing to enhance discoverability and sharing.

YouTubers use this feedback loop of video views and posted comments to analyze reaction to each of their videos and refine their content in reply, building the fan relationship and sense that they’re listening. (Child-targeted videos are no longer allowed to accept comments and it’s the biggest frustration we hear about from kids, who tracked comments to validate their own passion.)

One of the best, biggest examples is how JK Rowling managed the massive fandom of “Harry Potter.” When kids who’d grown up with the books and movies began making fan art and fiction, Rowling created “Pottermore” (now “WizardingWorld”) an official platform for creativity and community around the brand universe. She communicated and sparred with the members and used the platform to drop hints about upcoming developments. Its fanatomy spilled out of the fictional realm with the “Harry Potter Alliance” created by followers to apply the books’ principles of justice in the real world. One effect was to hold onto the “Harry Potter” audience into their teens and young adulthood, far after they’d watched or read the entire canon.

Young people love being given “bits and pieces” to make a favorite story and play experience their own. The toy industry, of course, has known this forever, making dolls/action figures and accessories for imaginative play around entertainment brands.

With so many children learning at home for the coming weeks, if not months, are there digital tool kits you could create and share out to engage your audience’s creativity and let them make something for themselves? Can you turn animation assets into images that can be downloaded and printed, toward art or storytelling projects? Can you share a story spark with kids and parents and invite them to make up their own episode or adventure?

When a work is very familiar, children are delighted by the opportunity to play with it, especially to make it silly. Laura Numeroff, author of many children’s works, read her picture book “If You Give a Mouse A Cookie” for YouTube this week, and did something clever. She told viewers up front that she was going to put in some mistakes. That made kids extra attentive, but also brought a “Blue’s Clues” moment of simulated interactivity to a story they likely could have recited from memory.

As noted above, creating participatory moments can extend the audience age range of your work. In the toddler years, most “educational media” pushes fundamental learning concepts to the child. With so much essential development to accomplish, it’s relatively easier to create one app, game or video series that will engage a broad audience.

By age six or so, however, children develop a range of personal interests and passions. The learning model flips from “push” to “pull,” as kids seek out information and validation around what sparks them, leaving behind the “one size fits most” products and content. This shows up in Dubit’s global Trends studies as a decline in use of apps for learning and a growth in internet browsing.

This is a challenge for creators, of course, because an atomized audience is much more difficult to reach at scale. Could a younger children’s IP hang onto its audience longer, though, if it gave its recent “graduates” ways to play with the characters and stories, to make them their own and create a “mash-up” with their emerging interests?

Who knows how long children will be out of school, or how long many parents will be working from home, as well. After the social media posts recommending content for home learning, the most frequent posts in my feed are anxious parents wondering how to manage “screen time” (an expression I hate, as screens offer so many different things) while in captivity.

When we visited homes to study “Minecraft,” many parents told us they didn’t necessarily understand what their kids were doing, but they approved of them spending time in the game because they could see the active engagement and creative spark. I have to believe that media makers can spark that same effect (among kids and, in turn, parents) by going beyond media designed for consumption and adding elements designed for creation.

Questions or ideas you’d like to discuss? We’re here to help.

Dubit is a research and strategy consultancy, and a digital studio, based in Leeds, UK. David Kleeman is Dubit’s SVP of Global Trends and runs its US office from Washington, DC. You can reach him at david.kleeman@dubitlimited.com.

Note, this article first appeared in C21 Media.

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