NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Any parent knows how hard it is to keep an eye on several children all at once. So imagine how marketers feel having to keep track of a massive group of them.
Beaming an ad for the latest toy, gadget or tasty treat at a young person between the ages of, oh, 6 and 14 was once an easy task: Put it up on any broadcast network during Saturday-morning cartoons. As cable outlets such as Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network gained traction, advertisers had even more opportunity, as those venues broadcast kid-focused programming during even more hours of the day and days of the week.
Now that digital media has emerged from its infancy, reaching kids has gotten harder. About 48% of consumers between the ages of 8 and 12 spend two hours online every day, according to eMarketer, while 24% of teens between 13 and 17 spend more than 15 hours online each week. That doesn't mean they aren't watching TV, but it certainly signifies that there are ways to reach them that don't necessarily involve buying the same old pipelines.
A 'first priority'
"I would say that TV continues to be the first-priority media, but you can't just rely on TV like you could in years past," said Ted Ellet, senior VP-group media director at Interpublic Group of Cos.' DraftFCB. "Not everybody is watching TV, and they are getting a lot of their entertainment from the web, replacing in some cases their TV viewership with online video consumption. They are certainly still consuming all of the stuff that is out there, just on different screens."
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Media buyers suggest that the Big Three of kids' TV have managed to carve out a stand for themselves in other venues. According to ComScore Media Metrix, Walt Disney Co.'s Disney.com, Viacom's Nick.com and Time Warner's CartoonNetwork.com were the three most visited sites among kids 2 to 11 in the U.S. in 2008.
"There are still a limited number of big players out there, but that's not to say there aren't more new-media companies out there catering to the kids which are becoming options now," said Ed Gentner, senior VP-group client director at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest.
Online, those places include sites such as Hasbro.com and Chuckecheese.com, according to ComScore, a clear sign that marketers are luring kids with their own content, not programming made by somebody else. There are also a number of content sites, such as Pearson's Poptropica and Funbrain.com, where kids can play games, communicate with each other and even learn a thing or two.
Children growing up these days never knew a world in which NBC was a wholly different animal than TBS. For this digital generation, consumers have always been able to zip back and forth between a TV screen and a computer terminal or laptop, and TV aficionados can see whatever content they want at the push of a button or the load-up of a convenient DVD. Marketing experts expect younger viewers' habits to become even more entrenched on the digital side.
"If I were in the business of spending real dollars, I wouldn't be so naive as to say, 'OK, we'll do Nickelodeon, and that'll do it,' or even MTV," said Tom Donohue, professor of mass communications and psychology at Virginia Commonwealth University. "I'd be on internet places -- MySpace, YouTube. Essentially it's working its way down from what was supposed to be a college-student phenomenon and is becoming a pre-adolescent phenomenon."
An eroding base
Academics believe the rise of social-networking sites, online video and applications for portable media devices will only drum up the number of hours young consumers spend perusing digital applications. TV remains dominant, but its base is eroding. "I really think advertisers need to look more into placing more dollars on the web, specifically because a lot of TV shows are being repurposed on the web and a lot of dollars are creating original content for the web," said Trey Stohlman, an instructor at the School of Broadcasting and Cinematic Arts at Central Michigan University.
Expect the youngest customers to become even more difficult to reach in the months and years ahead, Mr. Stohlman said. "We know they text. We know they use cellphones, but that still doesn't necessarily tell us how saturated the marketing really is with this technology. All of these kids are growing up with cellphones or Nintendos or PSPs in their hands, and I don't think we are really portraying that very well," he said.
In other words, TV works and will continue to do so -- but there are a host of emerging venues that are likely to reach smaller groups of consumers in more relevant and immediate ways.