Nickelodeon's Web site early this month debuted BubbleCast, its latest version of online interactivity for the tween audience. At first glance, it's just another online game, albeit one that involves simultaneous viewing of a TV show. But it also represents a new thrust in companies' determination to market online to the 12 and under set, a group with the power to influence major purchases but restricted from access to e-marketing efforts.
BubbleCast allows viewers of Nickelodeon's "Rugrats" to answer in real time questions about what's happening on the cable show. Players are awarded points for each correct answer.
Combining TV and online computer gaming is not a new concept in Nickelodeon's view.
TECHNOLOGY PART OF LIFE
"Today's kids are the first generation to grow up with computer technology and television as a natural part of their everyday lives. BubbleCast brings together TV and online, creating a deeper, more interactive entertainment experience for kids," says Cyma Zarghami, exec VP-general manager at Nickelodeon.
"BubbleCast is something I call deep convergence-that is, we're offering a range of different programming that adds up to the real promise of interactive TV," says Mike Skagerlind, general manager of Nick.com. "BubbleCast is the next phase in Nickelodeon's multimedia convergence programming strategy in that we're seeking ways to bring together the benefits, the excitement and the involvement kids can have within the TV and computer environments."
Although BubbleCast initially won't post advertising, such efforts certainly will come, Mr. Skagerlind says. "Within Bubble-Cast, there's an opportunity for an advertiser or two to have a Flash commercial or animation seamlessly interwoven between segments of the game. One could do advertising on both [the TV and computer] screens; it's a real opportunity for an advertiser to both be on TV and online at the same time."
Advertising holds the most promise and the most pitfalls for marketers, Mr. Skagerlind admits.
"I would argue there are many ways to be interactive with tweens and younger kids that do not compromise their privacy," he says. "Certainly, one must be aware of the [Children's Online Privacy Protection Act] guidelines, but if you're not eliciting personally identifiable information ... there will [still] be many marketing opportunities."
Marketers positively "salivate" over this advertising-savvy tween audience, says Irma Zandl, president of Zandl Group, a New York-based trends research company. "Tweens really do like this idea of being marketed to as a separate group, and they're savvy about advertising and marketing."
Ms. Zandl is watching Nick.com's online programming and marketing closely, since she, like many other tween-marketers, remains uncertain about what works best to reach these children online.
"This whole area is still in its infancy," she says. "We do know that tweens like the entertainment and game sites, but marketers really haven't figured out how they can use [kids' interests] to develop a relationship."
WebCredit is investigating tweens' interest in philanthropy. The Boston-based Internet payment service provider specializes in microtransactions (those that involve sales ranging from a penny to $10) and is testing the waters for kid-based e-commerce with the new KidCredits (kidcredits.com).
The site enables children to make small e-donations to selected charities. The environment is carefully controlled as parents establish a KidCredits account in a predetermined amount with a credit card. Privacy and security are monitored; no single transaction can exceed $10.
While the idea of KidCredits is to foster new opportunities for philanthropy on the part of kids, it may well be the forerunner of an online e-commerce business model.
"Kids today are the most open to the paperless currency environment," says Yvonne Ruggles, VP-operations at WebCredit. "But it's very difficult to market to them directly; COPPA limits the ways you can gather information or promote to children online.
"We, like other marketers, are struggling to figure out how to market to kids without violating or compromising their privacy," she adds. "The situation becomes very muddy the further you delve into it ... so much so that many marketers are avoiding the idea of marketing to kids under 13."
"It's not easy to market to this age group," Ms. Ruggles adds. "[However] kids already conduct microtransactions offline, [so] there is going to be a familiarity in doing the same thing online."
Steve MacDonald, CEO of Beyond360, a developer of private-label communities, also is watching BubbleCast with more than a passing interest.
His company is marketing a tween online business model in which marketers are able to sidestep the COPPA privacy and security restrictions by avoiding registration and data exchange. Unique sites are offered, filled with community, games, downloads and shopping. Currency, however, involves a point system.
POINTS ARE BANKED
For example, kids earn points playing a Taco Bell branded game or answering an online poll. Those points can be banked in an account and used to earn coupons good for items at participating retailers. The key is the coupons are printed and must be redeemed offline.
"There's no need for any kind of child-specific information," Mr. MacDonald says. "That's what gets so many companies in trouble. What makes sense is for a marketer to offer up a shopping experience that takes an online relationship but moves the fulfillment offline."
Beyond360 is presenting its online community ideas to marketers including Burger King Corp., Nestle, Pepsi-Cola Co. and Nickelodeon, Mr. MacDonald says.
Technologically, Nick.com's Mr. Skagerlind isn't ruling out any possible tween marketing opportunity.
"I'm bullish about advertising and marketing online to kids because kids by definition are pioneers," he says. "They do like to explore new media. This medium ... is a great medium for them because they can express themselves and interact with others in ways they can't do with other media. Every time they click on an icon, they're actively making choices, they're not just sitting back and watching anymore."