How to stay on the right side of the rules when researching children

Digital development has brought with it a plethora of interactive and engaging techniques for conducting market research with children. But with additional accessibility comes increased responsibility.

“As a research industry we need to make sure we are absolutely putting the needs and welfare of children first,” says Richard Ellwood, research director at The Walt Disney Company and a member of the Market Research Society’s (MRS) Market Research Standards Board.

“Online research has changed the way we talk to children and get their opinions but we need to make sure we ask appropriate questions so there is no ambiguity.”

To ensure brands are able to make full use of all the opportunities available to them while keeping up with the changing landscape, the MRS has developed a new set of video guidelines for researching children.

“A lot of what we’re doing is reminding people of the things they should be doing already but may need to do differently now more research is done online,” says Jane Frost chief executive of the MRS. “It’s something the wider marketing communications industry needs to take more seriously than it does.”

The series of short videos is designed to make the guidelines more accessible by distilling the information into easily digestible chunks which are accompanied by a fact sheet for each topic: consent and permissions, qualitative research, quantitative research, analysis and reporting, sensitive information and disclosure, recruitment, pre-tasks and incentives.

As an example of how brands can trip up, Frost explains: “You can’t assume that an email is consent of a child being interviewed because it isn’t automatically verifiable. It may sound like a small point as we all communicate via email everyday but it’s not a legally verifiable identification unless you follow up with a phone call or a letter.”

The rules state that if a brand wants to conduct research with children under the age of 16 in the UK they must get consent from a responsible adult, as well as informed consent from the child. If conducting research in schools, researchers should again get permission from parents or guardians in addition to teachers, especially if video is being used.

“It is a more involved process [than researching adults] because you can’t go directly to children, which means the costs are likely to be higher but it’s so crucially important that we do protect the more vulnerable people that we speak to as part of the research industry,” insists Ellwood.

Incentives are another area where the rules are very clear and while it is commonplace to compensate children and/or their parents for their participation it should never be done with the brand’s own products.

“People have asked about whether we can give Disney products [as rewards to research subjects] but the guidelines clearly state that you cannot give clients your goods or services as it would blur the line between research and selling,” says Ellwood.

The MRS has recently clamped down on the practice of selling under the guise of research, known as ‘sugging’, and reported 19 companies including a number of charities to the Information Commissioner’s Office at the end of January.

“It is under the remit of the agency [conducting the research] to make sure they are giving the most appropriate incentive [which is normally] cash or vouchers for a sum that is appropriate for the amount of time the child has given,” adds Ellwood.

Brands also need to be mindful of the environment in which research is being conducted to help make children feel at ease so they get the most accurate and insightful results.

Nickelodeon UK’s research director Alison York says conducting research in a comfortable and familiar setting is critical to generating the most natural response from children.

“The ultimate is at home on their sofa or in someone else’s lounge,” she says. “A school setting can also be good because it is familiar and they do tend to forget [they are taking part in research] quite quickly as they get caught up in the content, so once we’ve warmed them up their reactions do seem quite natural.”

In order to gain a further level of insight, the media company has also recently trialled the use of facial coding techniques with eight- to 11-year-olds, which York says provide a “sincere response to their emotional engagement”.

“Children often struggle to articulate themselves, particularly when they are very young, so this was really useful as it measured children’s reactions in the moment rather than asking them to report on their perceived behaviours, which often aren’t actually very accurate,” she says.

Similarly, in order to get an in-the-moment response, Disney’s Ellwood says it’s important to conduct interviews in an environment that is in keeping with what the research is about.

“If you want to talk to children about playing on their games console, if you can do so while they’re actually playing on their games console in their sitting room you’ll be able to observe more about their behaviour and engagement, and you’ll get an in-the-moment response,” he says. “I find that’s where you get the most honest and useful insight.”

He believes children don’t always feel comfortable talking about certain topics in front of a broader peer group, particularly if it is mixed-gender, even if they are the same age.

“Children are so sensitive to what they say and how others may perceive them,” says Ellwood. “It’s fine for particular topics but I find that talking to children with one or two of their friends [is more effective].”

The Royal Shakespeare Company used an app before and after the production of Wendy and Peter Pan to gain audience insights

When researching children’s views about risk and trust online, Ofcom used a ‘triangulated’ methodology, which involved speaking to and monitoring children aged eight to 17 in three different scenarios to get a true understanding of their behaviour and thinking.

Working with Sherbert Research, Ofcom first spoke to children within their friendship group at home with a moderator. It then filmed the same group without the moderator present to see what impact having no adult in the room would have, before returning the following day to continue the conversation in a one-on-one situation.

Alison Preston, head of media literacy research at Ofcom, says: “This methodology gave us a deeper overview of how children go online and what their views are about their online experiences, a topic that can be challenging when wholly reliant on moderated group discussions.”

The research provided a variety of responses, which varied depending on the environment in which they took place.

“[Peer pressure] was removed when they were alone with the moderator, and where having an adult in the room could have potentially influenced their responses, we were able to check if this was the case when the adult was no longer there asking the questions,” she says. “The results can be seen clearly in some of the video footage which shows much more natural discussions when the children were self-moderating.”

Nickelodeon’s York suggests it is also important to tailor research to each individual age group because what works with a six-year-old will be “incredibly different” from what works with an eight-year-old, even though there is just a two year age gap, because they are at different developmental stages.

“It comes down to concentration,” she says. “The little ones aren’t really capable of focusing for too long so we often create bespoke things for them to do and ‘gamify’ a lot of our focus groups to keep them engaged.”

Nickelodeon uses a combination of media diaries, mood boards, Top Trumps-style games and other activities, all with the aim of promoting conversations. “We also do personification exercises, particularly when working on conceptual ideas with kids around brand saliency,” she adds.

“It’s all about getting beyond comments such as ‘it’s fun’ or ‘I love it’ to work out why. Once kids hit nine and 10 they can engage in longer, in-depth conversations [whereas] we tend to observe more with kids under seven and often speak to their parents too.”

Frost from the MRS agrees that even though there are many more options at researchers’ disposal today they must remember they are dealing with children so literacy, numeracy and comprehension are critical, and brands must think clearly about how they phrase certain questions to gain actionable insight.

“You may want to find out whether kids value something but you can’t use the word ‘value’, instead you need to build up to it with a number of games and trade-off examples,” she explains.

Similarly, she suggests that simply asking a child ‘would you like your mum to buy this product for you?’ is not necessarily conducive to getting a true answer because the child may be bored by the question or answer because they want to please the interviewer, which could influence their response.

“They also wouldn’t know whether there was a trade-off between that and another product or what they might have to do in return,” she adds. “Research with children is a lot more complex. With adults you can offset for the fact that you’ve got a rational buyer but kids see things completely differently.”

RSC uses research app to inform marketing

The Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) gained a wider understanding of children’s views of its production of Wendy and Peter Pan last year by asking audiences to share their expectations and experiences before, during and after the show via an app, the results of which are now being used to inform future marketing activity ahead of the show’s return later this year.

The RSC normally captures feedback via online surveys following a visit to the theatre as Becky Loftus, head of audience insight at the RSC, says it is hard to conduct qualitative research during a show. However using the app enabled the company, in partnership with research agency MMR, to gather live reactions.

“We know children like using technology so we thought this would help us capture more in-the-moment responses,” she says. “As it was designed for children we had fun, ‘gamified’ questions and asked participants to take photos and videos of themselves talking about their experiences during the interval and after the show.”

Ahead of the show the RSC discovered that children were particularly interested about how characters would be able to fly on stage. “The intrigue around flying and the fact it is one of the things children are most excited by means we will be tailoring the trailer and the images we use to really highlight this aspect,” says Loftus.

During the show, characters and staging were big talking points for the children. Two weeks later, meanwhile, they were much more reflective about some of the deeper issues raised in the play, such as the death of one of the characters and Wendy’s strong female image.

Loftus admits that it was quite hard to organise this type of research though and the response rate wasn’t as good as normal because people had to commit to three stages of feedback, but regardless she says “we would definitely consider using an app of this kind again for shows that we feel have a future life and particularly those aimed at children”.