Mini marketers must be treated with kid gloves

With concerns about using children for peer-to-peer marketing being voiced in Whitehall, brands are under pressure to demonstrate they are handling this youth channel responsibly or risk a backlash.

Playground chatter has become a marketing channel of sorts. Peer-to-peer (P2P) marketing using children is seen as one of the most effective ways for brands to reach younger consumers who are likely to be influenced by their friends.

Ninety-one per cent of children between the ages of six and ten think a product is cool because their best friend does, according to a study commissioned by Marketing Week from Fly Research (see cover story). And 87% think something is cool because their friends or members of their family talk about it.

But now P2P marketing is under threat from government regulation after the Conservative Party promised to ban youth P2P marketing techniques in its pre-election manifesto.

While details have yet to be revealed, the Tory manifesto pledged to “crack down on irresponsible advertising and marketing, especially to children” and to “tackle the commercialisation and sexualisation of childhood”.

So how will brands react to this new clampdown which aims to stop children being used as “mini marketers”? After all, P2P techniques seem to be one of the most effective ways that brands can reach this often inaccessible audience.

Dr Agnes Nairn, professor of marketing at RSM Erasmus University in the Netherlands, says these results mirror trends in the adult population. “Studies show that companies are becoming less trusted and people look to friends or family members for recommendations.”

However, there’s a clear difference between kids telling their friends they like something and being actively recruited to promote a product. Nairn, who specialises in studying marketing to children, says she is concerned about “the commercialisation of kids’ friendships”.

She is not the only one. Comedian David Mitchell, who writes promotional webisodes for male grooming brand Bulldog, recently used his column in The Observer newspaper to ask: “Our kids may care about brands, but do brands really care about kids?”

Even some of those working in the “influencer” industry are unsure that P2P marketing is acceptable for children. Molly Flatt, president for Word Of Mouth UK and word of mouth “evangelist” at agency 1000heads, says she’s “squeamish” about using young people to promote brands.

The Word of Mouth Marketing Association (WOMMA) has set out a code which the UK arm adheres to. It says that companies should take care when using word of mouth marketing directly using under 18s, and under 13s shouldn’t be used in any circumstance.

But Flatt’s agency doesn’t market through word of mouth to under 18s directly. “We don’t think it’s necessary because you can get enough advocacy from those who hold the purse strings,” she argues, adding: “Isn’t it better to target mums and dads who – at the end of the day – make the decisions?”

Youth research and marketing agency Dubit has been heavily criticised this year for its use of P2P techniques with young audiences. In February, it received damning coverage in the Sunday Times, the Daily Mail and The Sun, which all criticised the company for turning kids into what the Sunday Times called “mini-marketers”, who are offered “rewards to plug brands”.

We’re not paying them to lie, deceive or say things they don’t mean. We want to find people who like the product

Robin Hilton, Dubit

Robin Hilton, marketing director at Dubit, admits his agency does create social P2P campaigns for young people but says this audience actively desires to get involved in campaigns and peer-to-peer marketing. Committed consumers feel it is a way that they can “establish a relationship” with the brands they care about.

The agency worked on one social P2P campaign that asked teenagers to follow a Food Standards Agency healthy eating programme and write about their experiences. “If young people could see how other young people felt, they might be more likely to take part themselves,” says Hilton.

Dubit also engages older teenagers and young adults with its brand-led P2P campaigns, which have also been criticised in the press for encouraging young people to buy fizzy drinks and unhealthy snacks.

Hilton denies that under-16s were involved in such campaigns. He says that brands need to acknowledge that P2P campaigns can be the most effective way to engage with the right sort of audience for their products. This is as true for governmental and charity messages as any other.

Yet it’s difficult to escape the controversial fact that some of the P2P campaigns run by Dubit do reward participants by giving them samples of the product being promoted.

Hilton claims this is a value exchange that cannot be avoided. He admits: ”In an ideal world we wouldn’t offer any incentive, but what we’re really doing is rewarding people for their time.

“But we’re not paying them to lie, deceive or say things they don’t mean. We want to find people who like the product. We test that by asking people to do some activity online to see if they like the product.”

In4merz, a P2P site for 11- to 24-year-olds, has also faced criticism for allowing such a young age group to get involved in promoting pop stars such as Lady Gaga.

Although the WOMMA code recommends that children under the age of 13 should not be used in word of mouth marketing, Clare Hudson, founder of the In4merz site, doesn’t believe she’s doing anything wrong by using younger children.

Hudsonsays the decision to allow 11- to 13-year-olds on the site was taken because at the time, social network Bebo allowed children of this age to sign up.

The In4merz site has more than 12,000 members who can collect points for activities such as promoting a musician’s album on Facebook. These points can then be redeemed in the In4merz shop for merchandise or people can bid their points for the chance to win a face-to-face meeting with a pop star.

But can this sort of reward system result in young people being encouraged to say things that they don’t mean?

“It’s not supposed to be about false representation where teenagers pretend they like doing something that they don’t,” says Hudson. “Teenagers are very savvy when it comes to marketing and they don’t do the things that they don’t like doing.”

She too says that not offering any value to her mini marketers would be unfair and unproductive. “It’s important to have a reward system. It could work without the rewards, but I don’t think we would be able to engage them in the necessary volume or be able to educate them without a reward system,” she adds.

Hudsonfeels that learning promotional skills at a young age should not be seen as something negative. She sees her site as “an educator in the area of music marketing and promotion”. The site has tutorials in digital marketing to help members promote music artists. And Hudson has ambitions to set up an academy to help young people learn marketing and PR skills. 

The problem with offering incentives to young people, however, is that even the risk of them being persuaded to talk without real interest is the antithesis of genuine P2P marketing. Spreading the word about a product or service shouldn’t be motivated by rewards, says Word of Mouth UK’s Flatt: “Word of mouth is driven by passion, not financial gain.”

James Layfield, managing director at agency The Lounge Group, says its research on teenage consumers and people in their 20s indicates that brands do not need to promote their products in a “drug pusher fashion”.

His advice is to “produce something brilliant and they’ll talk about it.” (see How To Use Youthful Brand Ambassadors).

Dubit’s Hilton says that’s a nice idea but sometimes engaging content alone isn’t enough. His agency recently worked with The Scout Association to recruit more Scout leaders. Many people felt that the organisation was a bit geeky so the agency recruited Scouts to talk to sixth formers and universities about their experience.

“With a project like this, you need young people to inspire others. A great piece of creative wouldn’t necessarily have had the same effect,” he explains.

The problem with using children in P2P marketing is that there is not enough research into the effects of these techniques on children, suggests Nairn. She has been critical of Dubit and In4merz, but is now working with them to advise on best practice.

She says: “P2P marketing involving under 16-year-olds really shouldn’t happen because we don’t have any research to understand what the effects are on children. Do they really understand what they are doing? I suspect that some do, but some don’t.”

Nairn doesn’t believe that more Government legislation is necessarily the answer either. More should be done within the industry to set out clear guidelines in the area of P2P marketing that includes children, she says.

Self-regulation works in other areas, she argues. The Market Research Society, for example, has recently increased the age at which companies can carry out surveys without parental permission. Young people under the age of 16 now need express parental permission to take part in research studies. This has risen from the age of 14.

Without more guidelines, youth P2P marketing is going to be open to criticism and bad practice, Nairn warns. While neither Dubit nor In4merz claim to be concerned about government plans to restrict their activity, marketers need to be aware of the issues surrounding “mini marketers”.

After all, if no clear guidance is put in place by brands themselves, the Government might just carry out its threat to ban children’s P2P marketing altogether.

How to use youthful brand ambassadors

  • Always ensure you are recruiting an audience that has a genuine interest in the brand or product that you want them to represent.
  • Develop a robust screening process to ensure you are connecting with real influencers.
  • Arm your young ambassadors with exclusive content because they will want to share this with their peers.
  • Put online functionality in place to make it easy for your ambassador to share content with their peers.
  • Maintain a regular conversation with your brand ambassador to ensure they feel part of the team.
  • Ensure there’s no smallprint or “catches” to the relationship that might put off your potential brand ambassadors.

Source: The Lounge Group

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