July 2, 2013 Linnette Attai

It’s time. The deadline for compliance with the updated COPPA Amendments is here, and while many companies have been able to make small adjustments to align with the new regulations, several are still struggling to understand what it all means. The new changes can be very complicated, particularly for players in the mobile arena who have built their products with third party plug-ins, and who rely on ad networks for revenue. It’s enough to make operators of even the most promising products consider exiting the space. But that doesn’t have to be the case. COPPA doesn’t have to mean that business stops. And it certainly doesn’t have to mean that we start to see fewer children’s products hit the market.

What it does mean, however, is that companies interested in engaging with the robust and profitable children’s market need to understand the practices and norms that have grown up over the past several decades around product development and marketing to children. There are some foundational underpinnings to the children’s industry that guide growth and development of companies that have stood the test of time in this market. Understanding that framework, and the compliance that surrounds it, will allow for development of a successful business that serves children in the best possible ways.

Here are just a few of the guiding principles to keep in mind:

1. Children are not little adults
When designing products for children, one of the most common missteps is to create a “kid” version of a product that was successful in the adult market. Bear in mind that success with adults doesn’t necessarily equate with success with children. It’s critical to understand the child’s perspective on what is fun or engaging, and how they might use a product – as opposed to how you envision that they’ll use it. The results may surprise you.

2. One child is not representative of your entire market
Children learn and grown at different paces. Understand the overarching cognitive, developmental and emotional needs, challenges and limitations of the age cohort you’ll be targeting. Understand the segment as well as you would an adult market segment. If you can’t afford custom research, there’s plenty of information that exists that you can start with. Your bottom line will thank you.

3. Marketing to children is complicated
Very young children don’t really understand what advertising is all about. They’re not able to grasp that advertising is intended to persuade them to act, and they tend to take marketing messaging literally. As such, they are exceptionally vulnerable to the messages that they receive. It is the job and the responsibility of organizations in the space to address children in a way that is appropriate and that takes into account their cognitive limitations. In short: when marketing to children, we must also protect the children from the marketing. Yes, it’s complicated. And missteps can be costly.  Be sure you understand the requirements before attempting to navigate this space.

4. Control your content
Understand the norms around content that has been generally deemed appropriate for children in the age group you’re working with. Combine that with the vision and mission for your brand, and think about what that looks like in execution. Develop parameters around that to guide your content development, and use them as a touchstone for your decisions.

5. Apply all of the above to your advertising
Bring it all back to the bottom line. If you’re considering engaging with advertisers, incorporating some cross-sell or purchase options in your product, be sure that the material is appropriate for your young users and your brand. There is a host of regulation and self-regulation that has developed around advertising to children. It is all intended to ensure that the messaging is not misleading, that it doesn’t take undue advantage of the young consumer and that the communication is appropriate. Again, your compliance team can help you understand this and set up the guideposts to keep your business moving.

These are just starting points for immersing in the children’s industry. Successful companies in the space do a deep dive into the issues, concerns and history behind all of the regulation and self-regulation that has developed over time, and use that as a launching point for creation of their own brand guidelines and cultures of compliance. Volumes could be said on each of the above points, but for now, remember that companies that target or appeal to children are different than any other. Appreciating that and understanding a bit of what that means will start you on the path to success.

Next: Practical steps to compliance with COPPA.