Conducting market research with children

Until quite recently, many marketers scoffed at the idea of conducting qualitative research among children. Efforts were focused on the parents who ultimately paid for things. Today, however, products and services aimed at children are rarely launched without some idea of how, in a very literal way, they’ll play to their prospective targets.

Although qualtitative research has its place, creating products and marketing messages that appeal to children often requires additional input. This is particularly true for younger children who may have difficulty responding to standard survey questions. Market research methods have blossomed beyond traditional focus groups and in-depth interviews. They have adapted to children’s unique abilities and perspectives. Here is an overview of some alternative ways to gather information from these special consumers.

By simply observing children, one can obtain a more complete understanding of children’s behaviour and how they interact with specific products and services. Traditional focus groups can shed valuable light on kids’ behaviour and lifestyles, but observational research paints a richer picture because it functions at “real time” and in “real space.”

By observing and recording behaviour in the same way anthropologists do, researchers can unearth nuggets in a child’s subconscious response–the gesture or word that sparks an “a-ha” of understanding. For example, a child may not be able to recall or explain why he chose a particular pair of athletic shoes. But watching him interact with an in-store shoe display and then seeking out the same brand in an aisle stocked with boxes can “say” plenty.

Observational research is sometimes the only way to get information about the youngest consumers. Preschoolers who aren’t reading and writing yet can’t answer standard surveys, and infants and toddlers who can’t talk yet have even greater communication limitations. But it’s possible to glean all kinds of insights by watching little ones interact with products and other people. In fact, infant research often involves parents’ participation because the parent-child relationship is such a dominant element at this stage of life.

Undoubtedly the best way to observe children is in their own habitat–homes, malls, fast-food restaurants, skating rinks, video stores, and concerts. Other ways to elicit ethnographic insights include asking children to keep diaries of their everyday lives. These may be written, voice-recorded, or done via video. Through this type of documentation, children may reveal how parental or peer pressure directly or indirectly affects their choice of music, clothes, and food, even if they are unaware of or are unwilling to voice such influences.

Consumer panels offer another option. While most consumer panels have historically collected quantitative data, such as purchases, and have consisted primarily of adult respondents, researchers are recruiting children for qualitative panels with increasing frequency and success. Although qualitative panels do not need to be statistically representative of a general population, they usually consist of 75 to 100 children with a good mix of boys and girls and some ethnic diversity. Panels convened for child-oriented purposes tend to work best for the 6-to-12 age range, because younger children cannot always verbalize well enough, while teens are already looking beyond childhood. Researchers can set up a single panel in a convenient market or develop multiple panels in a variety of locations for different purposes.

A key benefit of panels is that they offer quick access to an established group of respondents. This saves money, too, because it reduces the amount of recruiting necessary. Panel members can be tapped for various types of research, ranging from observational work to product testing. They can also be recruited for specific projects based on information gathered during the screening process. For example, those who demonstrate a particularly creative bent may be better for certain brainstorming sessions. Panel members also offer access to other family members and friends, which may come in handy for some endeavours.

Panels are ideal for tracking what’s “hot” with kids. For example, children can act as your eyes and ears by checking in regularly to discuss what’s popular at school this year in snack foods in lunch bags, fashion statements, or new “slanguage” and its meaning. Companies can also place products with panelists for an extended period of time to learn how kids feel about them once the novelty has worn off.

The major drawback of panels is that, like childhood itself, they cannot last forever. Long before children age out of a panel, however, they are likely to run the risk of becoming fatigued respondents. It’s important to avoid the “professional respondent” problem by avoiding excessive interviews with the same children. At the other extreme, when research projects hit a lull, it is important to both children and their parents to let them know that their participation is appreciated and still needed. Keeping in touch on a regular basis by sending coupons for free or discounted T-shirts, novelties, and the like can help minimize the dropout rate.

Meanwhile, some of the more forward-thinking brands regularly invite children to participate in idea-generating sessions. These offer a great way to get children involved early in the game, as a source of inspiration for new-product development.

The rationale behind idea-generating sessions with children is that they will be the final judges as to whether products intended for them sink or swim, so it’s just as well to go to the source early in the process and listen to what they say. It’s easy to spend a fair amount of money developing a game or toy concept before finding out that it holds no interest for the kids it’s intended to reach.

It is important to understand that idea-generating sessions are not focus groups, in which children typically react to preformulated ideas. Handled responsibly, they are instead sessions in which children work as partners with trained facilitators to generate volumes of ideas. Because it is critical to find children who are articulate, able to think on their feet, inquisitive in nature, and willing to share ideas, researchers undertaking such an effort have to impose a more rigorous screening process. This process works best with 9-to-12-year-olds who can handle the abstract nature of the exercises without being hampered by the constrained “adultness” that teens often exhibit.

The results of idea-generating sessions can be applied to a variety of marketing tasks, including line and brand extensions, new products and services, advertising themes and imagery, product forms, and packaging options. The same can be said for the other creative ways to elicit valuable clues from these savvy, intelligent, discriminating, and extremely influential consumers. While traditional quantitative and qualitative techniques are also essential, exploring alternatives will only enrich our understanding of the dynamic children’s market.

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