Marketing to Kids: The ABC's of Conducting Research With Children and Teens

Recently my ten-year-old gave me a compliment, "Mom, you look beautiful in your make-up. You know how normally your face looks all porey and greasy? You can't see any of that when you have your make-up on."

Kids tell it like it is. And that's the beauty of doing market research with younger audiences. They will tell you if a product or a commercial stinks, as well as when it's "awesome."

But interviewing kids is considerably different from research with adults. A male colleague, who is also the father of a 14-year old girl, tells of the time he tried to interview pre-teen girls about their preferences for costume jewelry. "It was the longest hour of my life," he laments, "I couldn't get any of them to talk to me."

Moderating focus groups with kids is the closest thing I know to being a game show host. To be successful, you need to combine Mr. Rogers' empathy with Monty Hall's gong-ringing excitement, all the while keeping in mind your goal of discovering what will encourage these little folks to buy a product, join a youth organization or watch a commercial — depending upon the objectives of the research.

It may not be for the faint of heart. Frankly, harnessing the energy of six eight-year-old boys is always challenging. But understanding how young audiences view your products and communications is invaluable to successful marketing and program development.

For example, a major children's museum retained us to consult on a range of new exhibits the museum was considering as it prepared to double its space. We showed exhibit designs that included simulated roller coaster and hang gliding rides to target 5th through 8th graders, and explored their reactions. While the kids were excited about the concepts, they also clearly expressed concerns for safety. Would there be helmets? How about a mat underneath the hang gliding? Our research showed that kids want to look competent and cool in front of their friends on school field trips to the museum. If an exhibit looks too scary, they feel anxious about showing fear in front of their peers. Our recommendation: position the simulated rides as the chance to try something new rather than as an all-out thrilling experience, and emphasize the safety precautions for the exhibit.

Structuring focus groups appropriately, establishing ground rules and providing plenty of stimuli are critical for conducting effective focus groups with children. Kids need structure in order to feel safe interacting and providing their strong opinions. As any parent knows, balancing structure with wanting to let kids be kids isn't always easy. As the Duke of Windsor once said, "The thing that impresses me most about America is the way parents obey their children."

Following are guidelines that we suggest for conducting effective focus groups with children:
• Don't mix boys and girls in the same groups. Younger children are intimidated by the opposite gender. Teens try to make dates and act cool.

• Structure groups by school grades, rather than age, and limit the age span within a focus group to two grades. Kids tend to act more like their grade in school rather than their chronological age. That means hold a group of fourth and fifth graders, rather than nine- and ten-year-olds. Also, pay attention to how school grades are divided in the district. Fifth graders can be in elementary school in some districts, and in middle school in others. Don't mix kids from entirely different school levels in the same focus group.

• Hold smaller focus groups. Up through middle school, limit groups to five or six children. High school groups can go up to eight.

• Plan on conducting shorter focus groups for kids than for adults. Forty-five minutes to an hour is appropriate for elementary aged children. Middle school/junior high kids can handle 60-75 minutes, while high school students can go to 90 minutes and perhaps longer if the subject matter and activities are interesting enough.

• Speaking of activities, plan on a lot of them — and have even more in your hip pocket. We have kids rate products on a "cool-meter," draw pictures to communicate their ideas, act out what they'd say to their mother to get her to buy them something and have shouting contests to vote between different concepts. And that's just to get us started. If an activity falls flat, be prepared to bring out something else — and pronto.

• Explain what an opinion is at the start of the focus group. We begin by going around and asking kids to tell their favorite ice cream flavor or sport, so each gets a chance to talk and understand there is no right or wrong answer.

• Make every part of the focus group as much fun as possible. For example, when it's time to begin something new with younger kids, ask everyone wearing green to lead the way. Direct kids to stretch for a minute between activities, "Big stretch up for one minute." Encourage kids to "snap your fingers if you heard what I just said." Ask for opinions by tossing around a giant beach ball — whoever catches the ball has to say what they think.

• Help kids to feel safe expressing their opinions. Kids are sensitive to what others think of them. For that reason, we do a lot of "secret voting." Encourage younger kids to write down their vote and drop it into a top hat (we have a Cat-in-the-Hat hat). Or have kids approach one at a time and whisper their "secret vote" in your ear.

• Focus on visuals, particularly for younger kids. We once had a client who wanted to test messages on first and second graders, and sent us typed sentences a few days before the groups. The problem was – not all first and second graders can read. We created collages that communicated our client's messages and showed them to the groups, getting the kids' attention and feedback on message content.

• Be specific when asking for kids' opinions. "Is this right for kids your age? It is more for girls or for boys? Would you ask for this for your birthday? Tell me two good things about this. Tell me two bad things." We have visual questionnaires that help kids articulate these areas.

• For younger kids, sit on big pillows on the floor rather than adult-sized tables and chairs.

• Firmly establish ground rules. Here are some of ours:
- Please talk one at a time (or we can't hear you).
- When we ask you to shout, please shout. And please be quiet when we ask you to be quiet.
- Stay in your seat unless we ask everyone to get up.
- We want to hear from everyone.
- No punching (!)

• Use body language to manage the group. Laugh and smile to invite the kids to participate and be creative. Draw yourself to your full height and glare at someone who's acting out (there's more of our parents in us than we even know).

And finally: Have fun! Doing focus groups with kids gives you a chance to learn how kids think, be creative, get new ideas and have a great time while doing so. How many grown-up jobs let you do that?


Jenny Schade is president of JRS Consulting, Inc., a firm that helps organizations build leading brands and efficiently attract and retain employees and customers. Subscribe to the free JRS newsletter on

© JRS Consulting, Inc. 2007