The Association for Qualitative Research
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Predicting the next Frozen

The money that big names such as Walt Disney, Warner Brothers and Nickleodeon continue to invest in media products for kids shows the relative buoyancy of this market. The fly in the ointment is how do you bank on a winner when kids' appetites change so swiftly and their use of technology likewise? This is where qualitative research can fit in.

Big global kids’ media products are enormously lucrative. In film, Frozen and the Lego Movie generated billions of dollars of profit in 2014. In TV, Spongebob Squarepants remains the most watched animation in the world and endorsement deals alone have produced $12bn in sales.

When these types of returns are possible, creating new media products for kids is enormously attractive. The issue in doing so is that the rate of change in young worlds makes it hard to predict kids’ future content needs. In the recent past, big behavioural changes have affected the way kids consume media. Key changes include:

Kids becoming device natives: Connected, portable devices have hit the mainstream. Some 69% of UK parents with children of school age have a tablet, and using connected phones or touch devices is second nature to kids. Successful products can no longer be static: kids intuitively want to interact with favourite characters and brands across multiple screen and devices.

VOD services eroding traditional audiences: Netflix’s heaviest investment by genre to date has been in kids’ content. This indicates its expectation that kids will increasingly view through VOD. As kids become less loyal to schedule and can cherry pick favourites, so the idea of creating brands and characters that live independently as brands in their own right will grow in importance.

Success of global brands: In a more connected, ‘smaller’ world, content transcends borders. This means it is increasingly important to create characters that on the one hand don’t alienate different nationalities, and on the other have the capacity to adopt some local
characteristics.

Where does qualitative research fit?

Broadcasters are increasingly looking to qualitative research to guide the development of new (hopefully) blockbuster products. Research, to understand effectively the world of ‘device natives’ and get actionable insights, has had to, and will continue to have to, evolve.
In essence, the fundamental areas researchers need to explore are unchanged. These can be roughly categorised in three areas:

1. What gets kids excited about new content and ideas?
2. What do kids’ worlds look like, and how can creators tap into this?
3. Which narratives will carry most relevance cross market?

In the past, research would have explored these areas using traditional face-to-face qualitative techniques. However, the way we look at these fundamental questions is undergoing exciting and seismic change at the moment. Traditional face-to-face work is increasingly being supplemented and powered up by new methodologies in each of these three areas.

Measuring kids’ reactions

Observing kids watching new shows used to be the best method of seeing when kids laughed, paid attention or turned off. While useful, it was hard to monitor the reactions of big groups of kids, and to be sure that research was getting an accurate take on engagement.

Technology is increasingly solving that problem, letting us measure sub-conscious emotional reactions to content. Increasingly, it is becoming cost-effective to place content on connected devices.

When content is watched, in-built cameras in devices can measure facial response. Currently, this is being used most to research short pieces of content — either ads or focused content on character. However, as technology advances and software becomes more accessible we will be able to measure responses to longer form content. This helps the qualitative research: knowing where interest spikes (or dips) allows us to tailor our primary research. In particular we know what specific plot points, characters, or scenarios to focus on.

Understanding kids’ worlds

An increasingly online world gives us the chance to (sensitively) understand the reality of kids’ worlds. Online panels act as miniature, safe-guarded, social networks for the sharing of ideas both individually and collectively.

Structuring questions around different topics daily can let us understand diverse areas such as device usage; key brands; favourite content; and who and what is most likely to influence choice. There is also the ancillary benefit that the researcher can upload content. This ensures that sensitive material cannot be lost or shared, and means the researcher knows that it has been watched pre-group.

Up until now, kids have responded to questioning via panel with written answers and photos. This, however, is changing. Stimulus is becoming more interactive, more powerful devices are becoming cheaper and connectivity speeds are increasing, making it easier for kids to respond with their own sound and video files. These developments, in conjunction with device-literate kids, will help power up our insights in future.

Building a narrative

New methods combined with mainstream tech ownership are enabling us to produce more compelling narratives. These methods already let us understand global markets better, and see potential problems when rolling out new products cross market.

Recently, Cartoon Network conducted research looking at the potential impact of new content for young Polish boys. The boys loved the content placed on the panel. The parents on the panel, however, were clear that they would not let their kids watch the programme as the show was deemed too rude.

Yet we, as researchers, need to think about how to engage creators beyond insights. In the future, we will have to think creatively about how to use mainstream visual networks like Instagram and Pinterest to give extra flavour to our findings.

Creating private groups, setting tasks and co-ordinating respondents are the tip of the iceberg here. This lets us create micro stories about audiences, but we need to think bigger — using these ready access networks to build compelling research plans around layered audiences (involving kids, parents, friends, and teachers). This has the potential to truly bring our findings to life.

Craft skills for the 21st century

The way kids researchers have incorporated new technology and techniques has helped us remain relevant in a digital world. The results have been impressive, allowing us to practice our craft skills in a context that resonates with kids. This is the reason qual research is still an important part of content creators’ armoury.

There is no room for complacency, though. In a world of continuous change our challenge will be to seek, identify and use new contexts in which research can happen, where kids feel comfortable and where we can fully exploit our craft skills — that is posing questions that matter, and providing analysis and insights that truly guide development.

 

Nick Fisher
Copyright © Association for Qualitative Research, 2015