Web Sense

A lot of attention has been paid to the Internet in recent years, but we are still struggling to understand how to use this medium to its fullest. Children are a logical target for Internet marketing because they are so facile with the technology. My four-year-old can’t write, but he knows how to click a saved Favorite and request a Google search. If he wants a new toy that isn’t in the store, he knows to tell me, “Daddy, we can order it on the Internet.”

The Kaiser Family Foundation just did a study of online food advertising targeted at children. The study basically looked at 77 websites of branded food manufacturers who advertise on TV and also have websites with content for kids. The key issue: On the web, kids can spend an unlimited amount of time interacting with food brands.

The study revealed a lot:

  1. Three-quarters of the sites combine games with marketing, as when a brand character is a focus of the game.
  2. Almost 2/3 of the sites use a form of “viral marketing” to get children to contact other kids about a product or brand.
  3. Over half the sites show their TV ads online.
  4. Half the sites had some nutrition information such as a label, 44 percent had a claim such as “good source of vitamin C”, but only about a quarter had information on a healthful diet.
  5. Thirty-eight percent had incentives for kids to buy product so they can get something such as a brand-related premium.
  6. A quarter of the sites offer clubs or membership opportunities. And only half of those require parental permission.
  7. Thirteen percent of the sites had polls or quizzes, some of which were based on brand-related research.
  8. More than three out of four websites studied tried to extend the online experience by offering kids things such as screensavers, CD covers, etc.
  9. A little over a third offer some educational content. About the same percentage offer a combination of advertising and education as when a brand character presents a lesson.
  10. Only about 18 percent of websites included any kind of notice to the kids that there was advertising on the site.
  11. Two-thirds of the websites had sweepstakes or other participatory promotions.

While interesting, this still leaves a lot to know. Although only 77 websites were studied, researchers checked through every link and so studied over 4,000 unique web pages. Yet we don’t really know how to measure the relative value of an item on the front page versus one six links away.

Beyond this, the study didn’t measure how many children actually visit these sites, how long they stay on them or how they are affected by these visits. It certainly didn’t measure how family purchasing behavior has been influenced by these sites.

Many produce companies and virtually all commodity promotion groups have sections on their websites targeted for kids. These vary widely in quality. Some are very “old technology” and look quite dated; some are very clever and have a lot of neat stuff.

What is unclear, though, is what, precisely, the companies hope to accomplish. Under what specific circumstances would a child go to a produce company website?

Very large companies might drive the traffic with consumer advertising or other promotional efforts. Branded companies looking to develop an affinity for their brands at least have a reason to try to get children involved in their websites. But, truly, what would make a child go visit a corn producer’s website? And, really, what does the producer want from that child anyway?

My children love the Internet, but mostly because they love characters from Disney, Nickelodeon, Sesame Street and Universal. If we really want to talk to kids about produce, it makes a lot of sense to partner with these folks and try to get produce and healthful eating incorporated into the stories these characters tell on their own websites.

Because the only time most kids are visiting the radish company website is when they have a book report — oops, maybe it will be a web report — due in school.

There is a tremendous temptation on the Web to simply do what we want rather than what makes sense for the medium and meets a real need.

Here at Produce Business, we’ve been wrestling with these issues for years as we have studied the Internet and looked for a way we could use it to make a real contribution to the trade. Many publishers just throw their print content on the web, usually in a truncated format so they can still sell the print product. That is not the kind of contribution we wanted to make.

We knew we wanted a daily product to use the immediacy of the Internet, and we wanted to thoroughly incorporate produce but also incorporate other disciplines to take advantage of the cross-pollination of ideas that can happen when you break out of a narrow box.

We wanted to link together resources within the business and ideas that may be useful but are not everyday parts of it.

We wanted to distill the information overload and put those events that are significant in context and perspective.

We think we’ve done it. We just launched PerishablePundit.com. There is nothing else like it — a unique community where we link ideas and information to foster insight into our business and the future of our industry.

It is free, so just go to http://www.PerishablePundit.com and subscribe. It is available as a website, a daily e-mail or an RSS feed.

We can only begin to imagine where the Internet will take this business. But PerishablePundit.com will assist in clarifying that future. I hope you’ll check it out and let me know what you think and how we can make it even better.