Catching ’em young

This article in the New York Times is a fascinating piece about the internet tactics companies that are child and tween-focused are engaging in, under the very eyes of their parents. I had no idea, for example, that Mattel has a virtual world called BarbieGirls where girls can chat with fellow Barbie owners, decorate their dolls and rooms, but moving on, have to pay real money to access certain ‘VIP’ games and fashion items. Or that Disney has a site called Pixie Hollow which is aimed at girls from 6-12 who want to turn themselves into fairies (amazing as it may sound).

All this is a precursor of course, to the kind of connectivity and access to technology that kids growing up today are going to have tomorrow when they enter their teens. This is where the advertising methodology employed by mobile network Blyk makes a lot of sense. I met Jonathan MacDonald, who was Sales Director and one of the key people behind Blyk’s success, at the TechCrunch UK meetup last week. Blyk is basically a UK-based network that operates solely for 16-24 year-olds. What they offer is not typical of O2, Vodafone or Orange, however. Blyk, for those of you who are not familiar with it, offers its users 217 texts and 43 minutes every month – free. All they need to be able to join is to be between 16 and 24, have a phone with MMS and live in the UK (currently, that is. I believe the network is going to spread to other countries in the next couple of years). Blyk’s modus operandi is simple: they get advertisers to pay so their users don’t have to. The catch (if you can call it one) is that these kids will receive up to 6 commercial texts a day, but it’s not a completely bad thing, because the texts will be relevant to their interests. So, for example, if a kid is a fan of sports and films, she will get texts pertaining to those industries, and so on.

To avoid freeloaders, Jonathan says, the users details are checked against a government database – they have to fill out a profile on the Blyk website to join. So, eternally young people who ‘happen’ to be 40 can’t join no matter what. It’s a win-win for both, because the kids are at the age where they don’t mind receiving texts as long as its based on stuff they like, and the advertisers are slowly retaining potential consumers for life. It seems like it is a pretty sustainable model, because there are always going to be brands and there are always going to be young people, and here, to tweak that saying a bit, the twain shall meet.
For me, it will be interesting to see how brands capitalize on this to feed product innovation, especially brands like Urban Outfitters and American Apparel that are youth-focussed. Even more interesting will be to track the experience of Blyk when it crosses over to the US, arguably the biggest consumer culture in the world.

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