Media

Why tech titans are shying away from children’s content

Image Credit: Image via Cartoon Network / Illustration by Tom Cheredar

Q Beck is CEO and Co-Founder of Famigo.

Remember all the toys and activities you loved as a kid? Well, its a different world now. From pop-up storybooks to building blocks to Battleship, many traditional children’s activities are now digitized on mobile devices.

Trouble is, the tech companies who are now programming and distributing children’s apps are new to the concept of ‘family media’. It takes finesse to build a mobile world that children can love and families can be proud of, which is why many of those companies are shying away from it.

Family media, reinvented

There are about 1.5 billion smartphones and tablets in the world today. In five years, that number is expected to hit 7.5 billion, according to Groupe Média TFO. 70 percent of children use their parents’ iPad; the average parent downloads eight iPad apps specifically for kids, PBS found. iTunes alone contains more than 700 apps for children.

In other words, when it comes to families and media, the screens are getting smaller. They’re not 60 feet or 60 inches any more; rather, 5-inch smartphone screens and 10-inch tablets are the new standard.

However, there is a catch to this evolution into mobile media consumption.

While tech companies are adept at building incredible devices and software, the truly innovative media that families love isn’t necessarily making it to apps.

In my past life as a media exec for Nickelodeon and DreamWorks, I spent a lot of time working on films and media for families. It takes a lot of time, money and resources to create and produce something that children and families truly resonate with, like PeeWee Herman, Mr. Rogers or Sesame Street. Traditional media companies know that, but they’ve been slow to transfer their expertise onto the small screen. They still depend largely on static distribution networks such as TV, film and DVD.

Tech giants like Google, Yahoo! and Apple are acting as the new distribution network for children’s content. The recent announcement of version 4.3 of Android OS (Jelly Bean) definitely enhances the ability for developers to implement more granular control settings, however, it is fair to say that a number of tech organizations are uncomfortable thinking of themselves as arbiters of taste for children. Mobile apps are developed by computer programmers who are well-equipped to address a young audience, but may have trouble truly reaching and affecting those people.

A lack of experience in the family space leads some companies to make assumptions about what kids like, potentially oversimplifying media or not focusing on innovation as much as they should.

COPPA complicates the situation

Implemented July 2013, COPPA, the Children’s Online Privacy Act, restricts the use of ‘identifier’ technology intended to track the online behavior of children aged 13 and under. The use of persistent identifiers to deliver targeted ads is the core business model of the companies who now distribute apps, such as Google and Yahoo. As a result, these new distributors of family content are hesitant to focus on children’s media.

Traditionally, Internet companies monetize their apps through advertising that includes user identifiers. COPPA has had a ‘chilling effect’—it has discouraged business activity because of a threat of legal consequence—on media creation for children. The age group between 9-13 poses a particular challenge.

A new bag of tricks

Thrust into their new role as family media distributors, tech companies are weighing their options as to where to go next. In the realm of family media, there is only one bottom line: You always want to do the right thing for families and for kids. When companies keep that mission in mind, navigating COPPA and other challenges becomes, if not simple, at least more fun.

In addition to keeping families and children as their biggest priority, tech companies can follow these three tips in order to freely create content that kids and families will love:

1) Stay transparent

Kids these days are digital natives. They’ll have more experience with mobile devices by the age of 10 than most parents have by the age of 40. If a kid’s mobile experience is positive at a young age, it will inform their behavior as an adult. The opposite is true, too.

As a company, you want to make it clear upfront that your app will provide children with a positive experience, and it will also give parents the ability to parent as they see fit. If your app helps a child learn basic math and parents can prevent a child from navigating out of the app and clicking around on more ‘adult’ icons (like the iTunes store), be upfront about it. Show your commitment to children and families, and don’t hide any information.

2) Design a brand specifically for children and families.

The brand Universal means everything to everyone, but the brand Nickelodeon is all about kids. Take the lead of traditional media companies and build a brand just for children and families. They’ll trust the products that appear under the umbrella of your brand and won’t have to vet every single thing you put out on the market.

3) Focus on quality.

COPPA requires adult consent to apply identifier technologies to kids, so there is an inherent need to create a viable business model within these new parameters. Kids resonate deeply with high-quality content, and frankly, such content takes time and money to create. For the foreseeable future, the way forward is for your end user to pay for your app, either through a one-time payment or a subscription.

Bear in mind the market circumstances. Just as you read your little golden books three or four times as a kid, many of today’s children will use apps three or four times, then cycle onto the next one. What costs $7.99 on your TV is expected to be delivered for much less on your mobile device. Also, your apps will compete with other, more expensive media, such as cable TV subscriptions and console games. Weigh these realities as you consider your pricing model.

It’s fun. Seriously.

Tech companies today have an amazing opportunity. Every past technology evolution has ushered in a new set of brands in the family space. Developers, managers and entrepreneurs can spread the same joy that they experienced with their own games as a kid, but in new media and on new devices. While the legal and monetization territories look tricky right now, the truth is that kids = fun. That notion is at the core of success in family and children’s media.

Let’s collaborate to stop our adult world from squeezing all the fun out of being a kid.

Q Beck HeadshotQ Beck is the CEO and Co-Founder of Famigo, an Austin-based startup which has created a mobile platform enabling safe and fun content for kids and families. Prior to earning his MBA at the University of Texas at Austin, Q spent nine years in the film industry as a development and production executive for numerous companies, including Nickelodeon and DreamWorks. Follow all of Famigo’s latest child-approved innovation: @famigo.

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