Whether you work at a youth entertainment brand or an agency, marketing to kids introduces many pitfalls. Along with the ethical challenges posed by designing a campaign for children, a young audience demands different communication methods. From aesthetics to language, attention spans, and experience, kids are just different. How do you begin when you feel as if you’re starting from scratch?
Realistically, you aren’t. Marketing to kids can be difficult, but it’s not like sending dispatches to another world. Children are, at the end of the day, small adults—they’re not a separate alien species.
The youth audience has different needs, but there’s some overlap with how you approach a campaign’s design, user interface, and language. However, if you dumb things down and attempt to connect in a way that isn’t authentic, you’ll miss out on capturing this huge market that’s critical to your brand’s long-term success. After all, kids will eventually be adults at some point.
When an effective, thoughtfully considered message connects with a youth audience, you stand to achieve more than a boost to quarterly sales figures. You gain advocates for your brand that can continue paying off for years to come.
The challenge of applying research in designing for a young audience
Research is a critical component of every successful campaign. But for all the gains made possible through consulting multiple sources, you don’t have as many options when it comes to informing your approach with kids.
There’s an understandable legal question when it comes to consulting children for opinions without their parents present. And then there’s the practical considerations of simply trying to get a 12-years-old child to a place where they respond normally in an inherently abnormal environment. You simply face too many barriers when it comes to gathering your own information.
Research and consulting firms like Nielsen Norman are useful resources to learn how young people use technology and patterns in UX behavior. However, these studies are typically very broad and require some speculation to inform specific design questions. Plus, depending on who your campaign is targeting, your audience’s needs will vary dramatically. What's effective for one age group won't readily translate to another.
When creating a campaign, brands should still iterate on their ideas to learn what’s working. But it’s harder to find a firm solution that’s driven by data.
However, by following four rules, you can ensure your efforts to capture the youth market start on a solid foundation:
1. Know your language differences
Every generation, young people take a distinctive approach to language—it’s how we differentiate ourselves from our parents. But a youth audience doesn’t draw on the same experience to provide meaningful context for some terminology. What’s an obvious, frequently used term for you may not carry the same meaning for another age group.
For example, every adult using a web browser understands what a link labeled ‘FAQ’ means. But a child would never use those initials. If you want to deliver a clear message, you can’t only rely on your experience.
Similarly, “download” has been an accepted part of the internet lexicon since before Napster was born. For children, on the other hand, downloading is the very last thing they want to do. From the moment kids first picked up an iPad, their parents have told them to never download anything.
If you want a young audience to enjoy something free from your brand, you have to pick a word less associated with viruses and other dangers.
2. Don’t be patronizing or dumb things down
Given the different experience levels of a younger audience, you have to ensure your marketing’s content doesn’t go over anyone’s heads. However, assuming that your users are receptive to your message, you also can’t talk down to them.
While you need to devote extra time to account for the terminology you use, you also don’t need to dumb the experience down. Kids have only grown more proficient with the Internet and will even venture below the fold if your content delivers a compelling reason. A young audience isn’t going to want to read 300 words if it isn’t well crafted.
Be clear, succinct, and get to the point with your message. Users of all ages will follow.
3. Don’t try and be "cool"
Just because your audience is young doesn’t mean they don’t understand what they’re looking at. Your users know that the person who made this app was probably an adult. Trying to cover that up by approximating a youth-oriented language or visuals within your design is not helpful for anybody.
Connecting your brand with the communities that are its biggest fans is critical to your success in the digital marketplace. If you adopt stylistic choices that aren’t true to who you are, your fans will be first to notice. While overreaching happens a lot — there’s a reason this image became a well-traveled meme— it’s still an outcome you need to avoid.
The only way a brand should ever try and sound like a kid is if your page’s content is actually created by another kid. If you attempt to connect with young people with a voice that’s inauthentic, your audience will see right through it.
4. Good design is universal
Rather than attempting to build an app or webpage that looks like someone created it who was your audience’s age, you need to focus on the experience. Are you communicating the information your users need? Are you creating a satisfying journey? The priorities that inform every effective UI are more important to nail down than trying to make an app look as if someone drew it with a crayon. Children appreciate good design too.
Marketing to children can difficult. It also can feel unethical if you’re not considering your approach properly. By looking beyond your product to focus on the moments your customers can share, your message can connect with young people in a way that also resonates with adults.
Ultimately, youth is fleeting. But if you establish a pattern of communication that's honest, you'll form a connection with your audience that's built to last.