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Digital Kids: What marketers are saying

Phrases like "guerrilla marketing," "contextual content," and "social contract" were being tossed around at this month's Digital Kids conference in San Francisco. From a parent's or teacher's perspective, these new e-marketing buzz phrases might seem a little scary, but we don't think they spell bad news only. At worst they send mixed signals, at best they tell us some interesting things about marketing tactics and kids in consumer societies - things we need to know.

In this issue, Part 2 of our Digital Kids report, we'll take a look at those phrases and what they mean for young Web surfers (for the full report, click here).

  1. 'Contextual content'

    "Content is dead," asserts Dan Pelson, CEO of, a popular teen Web site. What he means is, content as we know it (the kind magazines publish, written by expensive professional writers). He's talking about content generated by users - chat, discussion boards, user polls, clubs (teens have created more than 70,000 of these at to date) - very cheap content to provide. The site publisher just hosts, the users do all the "work." Not all parents find this (teen-provided) content appropriate for teens (see "Subscribers write" below for a parent's comment on, another such teen site). As for the contextual part, that's provided by user (user-created clubs), publisher (user polls), and sometimes the advertiser. Ford Motor Company pays for the Cars channel at Bolt gets a sponsorship, Ford gets a continuous focus group to test ideas on. For other examples, please see our full report.

  2. 'Guerrilla marketing'

    "If you can give someone something for free that has value to them, that's what guerrilla marketing is," says Chris Storkerson of, marketers of skateboards, wakeboards, etc. Different companies put it different ways. LEGO describes it as "making the consumer part of the company." Whatever they call it, among other things, it sounds like hard work for the marketer, who has to stay on top of what its audience wants (with new trends taking root almost daily), deliver it in a cool way, then know when to "get out of the way," so that the teens themselves do the marketing, to their peers, via email. Mark Schiller of Electric Artists, a NY boutique agency representing musicians, says the marketer has to virtually live in the world to which s/he markets. "When a company poses as a teen and isn't honest, [guerrilla marketing] can definitely backfire. We have to make sure the message is teen-to-teen, not marketer-to-teen."'s Storkerson adds, "The idea is working the grassroots. It's a long, painful process, but infinitely more cost-effective and worth it." Why? There's a pay-off for everybody: The client gets teen's powerful third-party endorsement; the teens feel "empowered" by having information to pass along.

  3. 'Social contract'

    "We enter into a social contract with our users," says Renny Gleason, marketing VP for iTurf Network. The "contract" says the user is to be empowered, entertainment, or otherwise derive value from the marketing effort. The way Gordon Gould, CEO of, the first-to-know factor is top-value to his market: "Are you at the center of your network? Are you the 'go to' person with a lot of nodes attached to you - the authority of whatever it happens to be?", a startup that helps marketers give their users tools to create their own communities with wireless Internet devices, plans to take this new blur of content/marketing/community beyond the desktop into school, the mall, football bleachers, etc. An example of one Upoc-enabled community, created by a kid in New York (one of the "go to" persons he describes above), is all about New York celebrity citings. "These people are self-selected," Gould says.

It's tough to draw incisive conclusions from all this (tell us what you conclude, via!). Though some grownups may take comfort from the fact that these marketers do know, and are increasingly acknowledging, that "moms are the [credit-card-holding] gateway" and they have to market to parents as well, that doesn't seem to be affecting marketers' plans for the content of their sites. But if marketing and content are increasingly blurred, at least the marketer is putting the consumer in the driver's seat. Where that car is headed is another whole discussion!

For more insights, sample sites, and guerrilla tactics, do go to this spot in the NFN site here. And here is last week's conference overview on teen online interests. Next week: The latest trend in e-education (on display at Digital Kids).

Related reports…

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Family Tech

  1. Kids' best antidote to e-marketing

    In his column this week, "Kids need to think critically to weed out unsavory marketing",'s Larry Magid offers some balance for parents concerned about new-style Web-based marketing. On one hand, he writes, "As a parent, it bothers me that my kids are being looked at as sponges for commercial messages. It's bad enough that they get a constant barrage of sales pitches on TV and in teen-oriented magazines, but when they go online, they're not only getting pitches as advertisements, but also as part of the content."

    On the other hand, he cites research by Teen Research Unlimited showing that teens are "'acutely aware of when they're being targeted as a consumer group and are often unaccepting of messages which seem disingenuous or pandering.'" Let's hope. But in any case, Larry points out, it's up to grownups to help kids develop, value, and exercise their critical-thinking skills.

  2. Burn-your-own CDs: Mostly good news

    Walk into any computer store, these days, and nearly all the latest PCs seem to include CD burners. Quite the hot item! But don't buy one until you've read Larry's Los Angeles Times column on the subject. There are good reasons for even non-music fans to jump in (protecting data files, making copies for your car, etc.), but do-it-yourself CD-making has its frustrations. After testing, Larry tells why, as well as what to look for if you're in the market.

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Educational technology: Opposing views, new studies

Ed-tech has always had its share of controversy. The debate heated up a bit in the past couple of weeks, with the release of a study, or rather a compilation of studies, called "Fool's Gold: A Critical Look at Computers and Childhood." The release, by the Alliance for Childhood, was covered by many news sites, including MSNBC and USAToday. In its report, the New York Times gathered some teachers' opinions of the study's position.

We thought you might appreciate the strong teacher's opinion emailed us this week by subscriber Anne in California:

"CNET Talk Radio has been covering that Alliance for Childhood story all day. They interviewed one of the women who spearheaded this study, 'Fool's Gold, A Critical Look at Computers & Childhood.'

"These people are just trying to capture the spotlight during an election period when you hear so much about education and technology. Declaring a moratorium on technology purchases within the schools is such craziness - and so irritating, given that schools have waited so long for support and momentum to build.

"The reasoning for raising concern is faulty…. [The Alliance representative CNET interviewed] describes a situation that would ONLY be true if there were no teachers in the classroom and each child was strapped into a computer all day! She talked about repetitive stress injuries. Kids certainly aren't going to get THOSE on school computers. Kids simply are not on the computers that long. A GameBoy or PlayStation is far more likely to give repetitive stress injuries - and those are not tools used at school! Nor will the computer rob children of opportunities for social interaction or constructivist learning opportunities at school. Considering that most schools have a 5:1 ratio (or worse) of students to machine, no child is likely to be on a classroom computer for more than 20 minutes a day. Most kids will not even be on computers daily. The computer is simply not that intrusive. Even in the Computer Lab, the most computer time that children would be getting is two hours/week. This leaves 28 hours a week for other learning activities.

"This woman suggests that 'overworked teachers' (and parents) use the computer as an electronic babysitter. Not in our school. And not in any school that supports integration of technology into the curricula. The computer helps teachers reach and enhance academic goals. It certainly doesn't substitute for learning. She has her own political agenda. She is pushing 'good nutrition, safe housing and high quality health care.' She believes the money going into technology should be supporting these other economic and cultural goals.

"You can download this study at . This woman collected 81 signatures of people who support her study…. I bet none of these people ever set foot in a classroom where computers were being used. Shame on John Dewey - his 'eight loves' that mark a great teacher did NOT include love of technology. Look at all the trouble he caused!"

Meanwhile, two studies recently released by the US Department of Education "have proponents of educational technology cheering," according to Wired News. One found that e-rate funding is accomplishing what it set out to do: improve internal connections in the nation's poorer schools and get them connected to the Net. The other found that 99% of US teachers have access to computers or the Internet at school, but - as we've heard before - not all of them have the skills to use it effectively.

* *

School tech & advertising

An important subset of the tech-in-school discourse is technology companies bundling advertising into their products and services for schools. One such company claims (in its Web site sales pitch), "We reach over 13.5 million students who view 4 billion online pages a year. And our sponsorship and advertising opportunities let you be a part of every Web page they explore.…"

Our thanks to for a useful update on this phenomenon: "SchoolsforSale-dot-com."

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Web News Briefs

  1. Foil the filters?

    A contest called "Foil the Filters" is not only entertaining, it provides anyone wondering about the effectiveness of filtering software important food for thought. Run by the Digital Freedom Network, a human rights organization supporting free speech on the Internet, the contest winners present solid supporting evidence that filtering software (called "censorware" by its critics) is a flawed solution. Example: Grand prize winner Joe J. "reports being prevented from accessing his own high school's Web site from his own high school's library. Carroll High School adopted filtering software which blocked 'all questionable material.' This included the word 'high.' " Wired News offers views from both sides of the debate.

    This is an important topic right now, because it's likely that Congress will shortly vote on legislation requiring filtering in all schools and libraries that have benefited from "e-rate" Net connectivity funding from the government. Our sources in Washington say that, under this proposed legislation (a compromise of bills proposed by four legislators so far) parents "can't even give permission for their children to use unfiltered Internet access, and teachers can't disable a filter if they find that it's blocking a site they want the class to use." Here's a link to one version, the Children's Internet Protection Act, in "Thomas" a service of the Library of Congress (and a great resource for students, educators, all citizens). For a teacher's view on filtering, read to the bottom of Margie's comment in "Subscribers write" below.

  2. Learning from families

    They should talk to us parents first! As debate about violence in the media continues in the US Senate and other government venues, families nationwide are thoughtfully working out some very intelligent solutions to the problem. Witness the New York Times's lead anecdote about 14-year-old Will and his family in Yellow Springs, Ohio. Don't miss comments in the piece from Dr. William Damon, director of the Stanford University Center on Adolescence - just part of a thorough, thoughtful update on an important topic.

    Send us solutions you've worked out in your family or school anytime. They're more valuable to your peers than you'd think!

  3. For Net-ethics students

    The story of the SEC, a 15-year-old online stock manipulator, and a $285,000 settlement would be a great subject for Internet ethics classes. It was covered in a number of news sites, including and the New York Times. also looks at how other media outlets handled the story. We'd love to hear from parents and teachers who've felt the need to work with kids on tech ethics or who are teaching it right now!

  4. Online kids' spending

    A new study by Harris Interactive and Nickelodeon finds that the 65.4 million 8-to-24-year-olds in the US are "now truly a digital generation," and online youth are no longer a segment but have become mainstream." According to Nua Internet Surveys, other highlights include the fact that 68% of 8-to-24-year-olds are now online, and e-commerce constitutes 13% of their total spending. What are they buying? No big surprises: clothes, pre-recorded music, movie tickets, and books.

  5. Not all anti-Napster

    CyberAtlas gave us a giggle, when they prefaced a piece saying they're as sick of hearing about Napster's legal struggles as everyone else, but - really - this is interesting: Since the lawsuits began, not only is advertising on the site and all music sites way up, but so is traffic from an audience not known to frequent Last June (latest data available), "unique visitors 50 and older to [music-related] sites were up 92% from 3,555,000 in June of 1999, outpacing the overall US population's growth of 45% to these sites during the same period, CyberAtlas reports.

    And traffic from universities is not grinding to halt, as expected. Despite legal pressures, some high-profile schools have decided not to ban Napster, the music file-sharing software that is extremely popular among college students. Those schools are Duke and Stanford Universities and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, according to CNET. (We'll know Napster really is powerful if this becomes a factor for students picking what college they'll attend!) Another surprising defector from the MP3-swapping camp is a major record company - Capitol Records! CNET says the company is actually partnering with file-trading company Aimster, a competitor of Napster, in a Capitol promotion campaign.

    Meanwhile, Uncle Sam is getting blasted by critics for the anti-Napster language in the new Justice Department-funded Cybercitizenship Web site. According to USAToday, the site is also by the recording industry. The critics - an American University law professor, the Consumer Electronics Association, and the Computer and Communications Industry Association - said that, by telling children that "taking tracks from the Internet is no different from stealing a CD or tape from a music store." The language has since been changed, USAToday reports.

  6. Haggling for a scooter - online

    For a very fun way to find out how to haggle for a product (with human beings or software) in various Web sites, check out this slightly tongue-in-cheek first-hand account in the New York Times. (You may be able to finagle a Razor for around $70!)

  7. Convenience for citizens

    One can now reserve a campsite at Yellowstone, find the nearest VA hospital, or apply for a federal students loan all in one cyber-spot, according to the Associated Press (via the New York Times). The US government's very own mega-portal (it looks a lot like or - FirstGov - consolidates 27 million Web pages, the AP reports.

  8. Surprising digital-divide data

    Yes, there's definitely a digital divide still, but a new study by NetRatings turned up a surprise or two. According to the New York Times, the study found that families with lower incomes and less education on average spend a lot more time online than do others, once they log on at home. NetRatings analysts speculate that this is because they have less access to the Net at work than white-collar workers do (the latter did their surfing at work). NetRatings said these findings indicate that the Web is more broadly useful and offers "a more diverse set of services than people might think."

  9. Spam: Relief in sight?

    According to the USIIA Bulletin, there's a serious effort afoot in the US Congress to pass legislation that regulates unsolicited commercial email (spam). But stay tuned. "Direct marketers are desperate to stall the bill," the USIIA says, witness this month's anouncement of a new group - the Responsible Electronic Communications Alliance - that would allow commercial emailers to regulate themselves (here's a CNET report on it). "Critics note that the 15 member-companies include several already in trouble for violating their own privacy standards, and that the group has released only a draft of a standard that will be difficult to enforce," the USIIA reports.

* * * *

Subscribers write:; Game cheat sites

  1. A mom's thumbs down

    Referring to last week's issue listing Media Metrix's top sites among teen girls, subscriber Toni in Florida writes:

    "I noticed that you mentioned among teen sites. You should know that I just spent from June to today to have that site blocked by AOL. Finally today I received an email from Surf Control telling me that though the site still remains, all pornography … is now blocked. I feel that you should know so that parents are informed of content that is available on the Alloy Web site….

    "From the front page of the site, it looks like any teen magazine cover, and is also a teen catalog. However, their discussion boards frequently have material that is 'inappropriate' if you are doing your best to raise girls in today's world. I have been requesting that … at least the boards, etc., be blocked for teens 17 and younger…. I've seen much more than I've wanted to over the last months and learned a couple of new terms."

    [Editor's Note: Subscribers' comments on specific Web sites are always welcome because of how helpful they can be to fellow subscribers.]

  2. Of game sites' popularity, parent supervision

    Referring Media Metrix's list of top sites for boys in last week's issue, subscriber and teacher Margie in Texas writes:

    "The fact that the overwhelming majority of favorite sites for kids are gaming sites is absolutely no surprise for me. I teach computer literacy in 8th grade, and so many times I have heard others say, 'Oh, little Johnny LOVES the computer - he should do well in your class.' However, little Johnny know absolutely nothing about databases, spreadsheets, or any other application other than games. I do notice a big improvement in keyboarding skills, due to chats. This mainly seems to apply to the girls in the class. Some can type 50-60 wpm at age 14 (accurately)! Parents are being sold on the computer as this great educational tool but, without supervision, they are going to use it for the fun stuff (i.e. games).

    "Another interesting note: When I ask my kids if their parents supervise their games, many will say that, if they are unable to buy a game due to the rating, they will hand it to their parents and they will purchase it. It amazes me what parents allow their children to do on the computer. Parents, if you aren't willing to learn to use a computer and supervise their use, don't buy one! I never leave a child unattended on the Net. If I did, I could be in big trouble. Would you allow them unlimited access to candy????? Please don't get me wrong, I *know* that many parents do supervise, but if you're worried about your kids' use of the Net, you have to watch them. There is really no other way. Filtering software is imperfect."

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Show 'n' tell: Computers with little tykes

For parents interested in introducing their 3-, 4-, and 5-year-olds to a PC, child development specialist Evelyn Petersen provides some helpful tips and links in her Web site. They're from her book on "e-parenting," part of the SAMS Teach Yourself Today series. Go right to the tips here.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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