Smartphones are on pace to become the dominant form of mobile device in the USA by the end of 2011.  One emerging mobile trend that is already capitalizing on this technology shift is apps for preschool- and elementary-aged children. Sixty percent of iTunes’ 25 top-selling paid apps focus on education for toddlers and preschoolers. Approximately 93% of all 6- to 9-year-olds living in the USA have access to a mobile device—whether it be their own or, more likely, that of a parent. Moreover, time usage on smartphones is 12% higher in households with children than households without children, potentially indicating that parents are using these handheld devices to entertain their children, and that the children are secondary phone users. While a direct correlation between the 12% difference and children has yet to be proven, the marketplace certainly has numerous apps geared toward childhood education and games.

Although the demand for children’s educational apps is high, few brands have ventured into the marketplace. Those who have, such as Scholastic, PBS Kids, MadLibs and Playskool, have received positive reviews (from both parents and children) for their apps. These apps teach skills such as reading, math, spelling, spatial recognition and vocabulary. The success of such apps is attributable, in part, to their focus on educational content and user engagement over the brand’s marketing messaging. A good example is Kraft Foods’ “Big Fork, Little Fork” app, which teaches children (and adults) about food basics such as the difference between an apple and a banana, how to measure wet/dry ingredients and how to follow recipe instructions. As for product promotion, the Kraft brand is in view while the app is loading, and the app’s recipes feature Kraft products, but that’s where brand mentions end.

While parents can be sensitive to advertising messages directed toward their children, they are more inclined to expose their children to promotional material if it accompanies some form of educational content. The biggest hurdle is for marketers to develop creative, educational, and engaging apps that promote the messaging of their brands to children in a subtle and non-aggressive way. By creating apps that help parents educate or entertain their young children, marketers have the opportunity to elevate the perception of their brands from product supplier to helper and supporter.

Implications and Action Items

The current trend of mobile app usage among smartphone users for early childhood education offers a unique opportunity for brands to engage their audience and demonstrate the additional value of their products. 

  • Follow regulations. The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has strict guidelines for advertising to children. Become an expert in these rules, and learn what is and isn’t allowable.
  • Develop your app for two audiences. While children will most likely be the primary user, be sure to clearly communicate the value of the app to the parent; if parents think an app’s content lacks both education and monetary value, then it will not be successful.
  • Emphasize fun and education, de-emphasize brand, keep brand or product mentions to a minimum. Creating a fun, engaging and educational app is the primary objective. Better yet, incorporate your product, spokesperson, character, logo, etc., into the app, à la Disney’s Toy Story 3 app.
  • Think engagement over absorption. This age group doesn’t have a long attention span, so apps need to connect quickly and engage the user.

Author: Rebecca Johnson, RTC Relationship Marketing