Market Researchers Resources The 2018 Guide to Qualitative Research Methods

Research with Kids and Teens: Getting Inside Kids’ Heads

American Demographics (1/1997)

by Tom McGee

In the history of man, childhood as a distinct stage of life is a relatively recent notion. Children as a distinct consumer market is an even more recent concept. Before the baby boom came along, there was no market for children’s products and services to speak of. Today, children aged 4 to 12 influence more than $165 billion in spending in the U.S., and some say this is a conservative estimate.

Doing qualitative market research with children is an even newer idea than selling things to them. When the youngest boomers were in their tender years in the 1970s, many marketers scoffed at the idea of conducting qualitative research among children. Efforts were focused on the parents who ultimately paid for things. Today, products and services aimed at children are rarely launched without some idea of how, in a very literal way, they’ll play to their prospective targets.

Although qualtitative research has its place, creating products and marketing messages that appeal to children often requires additional input. This is particularly true for younger children who may have difficulty responding to standard survey questions. Market research methods have blossomed beyond traditional focus groups and in-depth interviews. They have adapted to children’s unique abilities and perspectives. Here is an overview of some alternative ways to gather information from these special consumers.

Researchers and marketers can obtain a more complete picture of a child’s life and how specific products and services fit into that life by simply watching children, although simple is probably not the best word to describe qualtitative research that offers an understanding of children’s behavior. Traditional focus groups can shed valuable light on kids’ behavior and lifestyles, but observational research paints a richer picture because it functions at “real time” and in “real space.”

By observing and recording behavior in the same way anthropologists do, researchers can unearth nuggets in a child’s subconscious response–the gesture or word that sparks an “a-ha” of understanding. For example, a child may not be able to recall or explain why he chose a particular pair of athletic shoes. But watching him interact with an in-store shoe display and then seeking out the same brand in an aisle stocked with boxes can “say” plenty.

Observational research is sometimes the only way to get information about the youngest consumers. Preschoolers who aren’t reading and writing yet can’t answer standard surveys, and infants and toddlers who can’t talk yet have even greater communication limitations. But it’s possible to glean all kinds of insights by watching little ones interact with products and other people. In fact, infant research often involves parents’ participation because the parent-child relationship is such a dominant element at this stage of life.

One way to observe children is in their own habitat–homes, malls, fast-food restaurants, skating rinks, video stores, and concerts. Other ways to elicit ethnographic insights include asking children to keep diaries of their everyday lives. These may be written, taped, or even on video. Through this type of documentation, children may reveal how parental or peer pressure directly or indirectly affects their choice of music, clothes, and food, even if they are unaware of or are unwilling to voice such influences.

Telephone focus groups were originally designed in the late 1960s to conduct research among consumers who were hard to herd into a traditional focus group schedule, such as doctors. Since then, they have become a very cost-effective and time-efficient way to reach older children and teens. Although researchers had initial concerns about youngsters’ ability and willingness to participate in phone discussions (they clearly didn’t have teenagers permanently attached to phones in their own homes), experience has proven that kids and teens are perfectly comfortable with this remote type of contact. In fact, in some circumstances, they are more comfortable talking on the phone than face to face.

Online focus groups offer some of the same anonymity that phone sessions offer. Although children introduce themselves to each other, they don’t necessarily have to mention things that a face-to-face meeting would automatically reveal, such as their physical appearance or manner of dress. While online accessibility is currently limited to an elite subset of American children, it is on the rise. If the Internet becomes widely available to the general population through phone and/or TV technology, this tool will make even more sense.

Because telephones and computers offer anonymity, children participating in these kinds of discussions are often more open and candid. Girls may be more willing to divulge that they sometimes eat a pint of ice cream at one sitting. Boys may more readily admit that they watch educational TV or avoid violent video games

Kids are more willing to disagree with what someone else has said when they aren’t looking that person in the face. The insecurities children have about their appearance and manner are also minimized. The “dweeby” kid will not be intimidated by the “cool” or physically imposing kid at the other end of a focus group table. Children participating in remote focus groups are also usually relaxed because they are sitting in their own home. Telephone and online focus groups are cost-efficient, too. They eliminate researchers’ travel expenses at the same time that they offer the possibility of greater geographic representation.

Remote focus groups have their drawbacks, of course. Research that relies on visual or physical presentation of concepts or products is much more difficult to execute via phone or computer, although increasingly sophisticated computer graphics are making the latter option more feasible. Perhaps more important, researchers cannot observe the body language and facial expressions of remote respondents. Online work may also be severely limited by children’s written–and keyboarding–skills. Another key issue for online groups in particular is the inability to verify that the respondent is indeed the recruited child, although carefully monitored password arrangements and such can help minimize the danger of misrepresentation. Finally, this sort of research is only really useful for children, aged 9 and older.

While consumer panels are not new to market research, they have historically collected quantitative data, such as purchases, and consisted primarily of adult respondents. Recently, researchers have recruited children for qualitative panels with increasing frequency and success.

Although qualitative panels do not need to be statistically representative of a general population, they usually consist of 75 to 100 children with a good mix of boys and girls and some ethnic diversity. Panels convened for child-oriented purposes tend to work best for the 6-to-12 age range, because younger children cannot always verbalize well enough, while teens are already looking beyond childhood. Researchers can set up a single panel in a convenient market or develop multiple panels in a variety of locations for different purposes.

A key benefit of panels is that they offer quick access to an established group of respondents. This saves money, too, because it reduces the amount of recruiting necessary. Panel members can be tapped for various types of research, ranging from observational work to product testing. They can also be recruited for specific projects based on information gathered during the screening process. For example, those who demonstrate a particularly creative bent may be better for certain brainstorming sessions. Panel members also offer access to other family members and friends, which may come in handy for some endeavors.

Panels are ideal for tracking what’s “hot” with kids. For example, kids act as your eyes and ears by checking in regularly to discuss what’s popular at school this year in snack foods in lunch bags, fashion statements, or new “slanguage” and its meaning. Companies can also place products with panelists for an extended period of time to learn how kids feel about them once the novelty has worn off.

The major drawback of panels is that, like childhood itself, they cannot last forever. Long before children age out of a panel, however, they are likely to run the risk of becoming fatigued respondents. It’s important to avoid the “professional respondent” problem by avoiding excessive interviews with the same children. At the other extreme, when research projects hit a lull, it is important to both children and their parents to let them know that their participation is appreciated and still needed. Keeping in touch on a regular basis by sending coupons for free or discounted T-shirts, novelties, and the like can help minimize the dropout rate.

As with consumer panels, the concept of working with children in idea-generating sessions is relatively new. Methods such as Doyle Research Associates’ “kideation®” process offer a way to get children involved early in the game, as a source of inspiration for new-product development.

The rationale behind idea-generating sessions with children is that they will be the final judges as to whether products intended for them sink or swim, so it’s just as well to go to the source early in the process and listen to what they say. It’s easy to spend a fair amount of money developing a game or toy concept before finding out that it holds no interest for the kids it’s intended to reach.

It is important to understand that idea-generation sessions are not focus groups, in which children typically react to preformulated ideas. Handled responsibly, they are instead sessions in which children work as partners with trained facilitators to generate volumes of ideas. Because it is critical to find children who are articulate, able to think on their feet, inquisitive in nature, and willing to share ideas, researchers undertaking such an effort have to impose a more rigorous screening process. This process works best with 9-to-12-year-olds who can handle the abstract nature of the exercises without being hampered by the constrained “adultness” that teens often exhibit.

Until a year ago, a manufacturer of children’s bicycles had done very little qualitative marketing research and, as a result, felt it was out of touch with its target. In order to generate fresh ideas for its next year’s line of bikes, it conducted “kideation” sessions rather than rely solely on adults for inspiration. The process motivated the new product Team’s approach and led to a 1997 catalog with a fresher, more aggressive attitude. The product line incorporated more than a dozen new ideas suggested or inspired by kids, including bike names, new color combinations, redesigned bike frames for both boys and girls, bike accessories, and an affiliation with a nature group for an environment-themed bike.

The results of idea-generating sessions can be applied to a variety of marketing tasks, including line and brand extensions, new products and services, advertising themes and imagery, product forms, and packaging alternatives. The same can be said for the other creative ways to elicit valuable clues from these savvy, intelligent, discriminating, and extremely influential consumers. While traditional quantitative and qualitative techniques are also essential, exploring alternatives will only enrich our understanding of the dynamic children’s market.

“I have used Doyle Research on numerous occasions, and have found the team to be knowledgeable, creative in recommending solutions for qualitative that works, able to turn on a dime when we needed it. We’ve had solid results and some highly insightful analysis that opened business partner eyes to some things they didn’t know but needed to.”

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