The Young and the Textless

Wendy Olson Killion was talking to her 7- and 9-year-old children about where to visit after getting them their passports. Without missing a beat, the younger of the two suggested taking a trip on the bullet train in Japan. How did her son happen to know about that particular option? “He told me he was watching Carmen Sandiego on Netflix on his tablet and it came up,” says Killion, VP of business development at Expedia Group Media Solutions. “He just has access to so much information.”

For marketers eager to reach generation Alpha, the story is instructive. Born — and yet-to-be born — between 2010 and 2025, Alphas are conditioned to an always-on society and the ongoing screenification of culture. Dubbed Alphas by Australian social scientist Mark McCrindle, this is the first generation entirely born in the 21st century — “alpha” is the first letter of the Greek alphabet — and Alphas probably knew their way around an iPad before they learned how to walk. Mostly the progeny of tech-savvy millennials, they live in a digital second skin and take for granted a connected world in which they have 24-7 access to a constant flow of information. Equally important — even though they’re barely old enough to cross the street unaccompanied — they have an adult-sized influence on their household’s purchasing behavior.

McCrindle estimates that more than 2.5 million Alphas are born every week. By 2025, their total ranks are expected to number more than 2 billion, according to Ad Age. By comparison, generation Z, which McCrindle defines as people born between 1995 and 2009, will number 1.8 billion globally. The upshot: Marketing to these youngsters, and their parents, involves a series of unique considerations, primarily the cohort’s blurring of the line between the digital and physical worlds.

The Kids Are Alright

While previous generations influenced their parents’ buying decisions, their impact pales in relation to that of gen Alpha. To be sure, Alphas have a disproportionate influence on technology purchases, including computers and tablets. A global survey of 8,000 parents of children ages 4 to 9 by communications agency Hotwire found that 65 percent of respondents said the habits and needs of their children influence their technology purchases. In the U.S., that number was a whopping 81 percent. “You used to think about parents influencing their children,” says Laura Macdonald, head of North America consumer practice at Hotwire. “Now it’s the opposite.”

But that purchasing power extends far beyond technology. According to Hotwire, 27 percent of parents said they would ask their kids for their opinions before buying something. While that can mean anything from home furnishings to TVs, such behavior is particularly prevalent when it comes to travel. “Millennials are more apt to listen to their children’s opinions,” says Michelle Bekas, executive director of account management at brand and design firm Red Peak.

Digital-Only Cohort

Alphas aren’t merely digital-first. They’re digital-only. What’s more, Alphas have considerable autonomy in the use of and control over their devices (depending on parental controls). The result: Marketers and brands have more opportunities to reach Alphas directly through age-appropriate content tailored to their tastes and delivered via multiple devices.

While Instagram is one of the main social channels in Alphas’ media constellation, the most effective way to reach out to this cohort is via YouTube (which is owned by Google). “YouTube is hands-down the most popular place for gen Alpha,” Bekas says. And the key to winning Alphas’ attention on that site is through a variety of “kidfluencers,” or video stars as young as 3 years old, who have millions of loyal viewers. Alphas love to watch as their favorite YouTubers take them through different experiences, often accompanied by sampling different products.

Take EvanTubeHD, with more than 6 million subscribers. Now 14 years old, Evan has for the past eight years posted amusing videos about toy reviews, back-to-school shopping, and other topics.

But the most powerful YouTube star is 8-year-old Ryan whose Ryan ToysReview (recently rebranded Ryan’s World) made $22 million last year, according to Forbes. His 22 million subscribers watch him enthusiastically engage in a variety of activities, from visiting Japan to playing with a toy grocery store.

Numerous brands have hopped on the Alpha bandwagon via YouTube. For example, last July Ryan posted a visit to a Colgate factory, where he created his own toothbrush and toothpaste while also learning about oral health, in a video that has garnered more than seven million views. The next month, he and his father played pretend fishing in a giant LEGO box filled with balls, which has drawn more than nine million views.

Parents Are People, Too

Despite the media savvy among Alphas, it’s their parents making the purchases. Marketers must keep top of mind the needs and tastes of mom and dad, in addition to their kids. Fitbit provides a good example. In an effort to leverage the positive reputation of its activity-monitoring device for grownups, the company last year launched Fitbit Ace, a product for children that tracks steps, sleep, and other activities. It rewards wearers with special messages and achievement badges when they hit their goals, and there are special control settings for parents to ensure oversight and safety.

Another way to attract both audiences is by using digital content to instead make usually unpleasant activities fun for the kids and less onerous for mom and dad. Take Chompers, a podcast and Alexa skill sponsored by Oral B and Crest in concert with Gimlet Media.

While brushing their teeth, kids hear jokes, riddles, silly songs, and other amusing content that lasts for two minutes, the dentist-recommended amount of time for teeth cleaning. “The kids are engaging with the content, but you’re also marketing to the parents,” Hotwire’s Macdonald says. “They’re thinking, you just solved a big pain point for me and I’m going to buy your product.”

In some cases, brands use a two-pronged marketing approach, one targeting parents, the other aimed at their gen Alpha kids. When Fairy Tales Hair Care introduced its TBH Kids line of skin and haircare products for tweens last year, CEO Risa Barash carved out a marketing strategy with different tracks for parents and children. More specifically, she posts ads on Facebook for the grownups while on Instagram she offers images and videos of girls engaged in different positive activities such as playing soccer or basketball, as well as upbeat mottos like “You are your only limit.” Plus, kids often ask her for free samples and then post pictures on Instagram, extending Fairy Tales Hair Care footprint.

Privacy Concerns Paramount

Of course, Alphas are children, and marketers need to be attuned to potential privacy issues. Tech-enhanced toys or digital channels that collect data could, for instance, violate the 1998 Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act, which mandates that online providers obtain parental consent before collecting personal information from individuals under 13 years old.

What’s more, in September, the Federal Trade Commission and the New York Attorney General required that Google and YouTube pay a record $170 million to settle allegations that the video service illegally gathered personal information from children without their parents’ approval.

Just as concerning: the potential for a backlash against videos targeting children. In September, the nonprofit Truth in Advertising filed a deceptive advertising complaint with the Federal Trade Commission against Ryan ToysReview channel, contending that it is “deceiving millions of preschoolers, who, in their early stages of development, cannot tell the difference between advertising and organic content.”

In a press statement released in September, Ryan’s father Shion Kaji said, “Creating content that is safe and appropriate for our young viewers and their families is very important to us. We strictly follow all platforms’ terms of service and all existing laws and regulations, including advertising disclosure requirements.”

Perhaps the most fundamental difference between gen Alpha and previous generations is the blurring of the lines between the real and online worlds. “They don’t really see a difference,” Macdonald says. For brands, that means offering content and products that meld the physical and virtual worlds. Macdonald points to LEGO as a solid example: Earlier this year, the company announced Hidden Side, a series of eight building sets that tie into an augmented reality mobile app that adds haunted elements for kids to explore. The launch followed the earlier introduction of other LEGO products combining physical LEGO buildings with digital experiences.

Ultimately, when it comes to gen Alpha, forward-thinking marketers need to monitor changes in technology and tastes even more closely than with older groups. “Given the rapid pace of technological change, we can’t really know everything that will happen,” Bekas says. “We’re all going to be learning as this generation grows up.”

The following is republished with the permission of the Association of National Advertisers. Find this and similar articles on ANA Newsstand.

By Anne Field

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