Targeting the Family’s Chief Tech Officer

Marketers slow to leverage kids’ influence with their parents

On June 6-8, a global agency sent some top execs to the Copperhood Inn and Spa in Shandaken, N.Y., to spend the weekend chatting with 17 teens and tweens, and 14 parents. The goal: to decode what—and who—is driving high-tech decisions in the home.

From Grand Theft Auto to ground connectivity, PDAs to printers and the Sims to SMS, there’s no underestimating kids’ level of sophistication with technology. “Many of these kids don’t hand in homework on a looseleaf sheet of paper but present it [via Powerpoint and Excel] as if they were in a client meeting,” said Marian Salzman, chief strategy officer for Euro RSCG Worldwide, New York, which sponsored the retreat.

While kids have been primary influencers in the purchase of everything from fast food to the family minivan for years, their facility with technology—and ability to teach Luddite adults how to use it—has made them the de facto chief technology officer of today’s household. There’s no lack of anecdotal evidence to back this up, but quantitative evidence has been scarce—and marketers have been slow to understand how to tap into this evolving family dynamic.

The weekend retreat was part of Euro’s drive to understand what technology kids use (they were buzzing about iPods and digital cameras), how those products change the way they interact and how parents keep up with the Joneses—in this case, their own children.

Euro’s chief findings: “Kids are CTOs, their parents are CFOs, and both have veto power over high-tech purchases,” Salzman said. “The kids develop the brand set and have a real voice in determining what [tech product] does and does not get introduced into the household. The parents control the purse strings but don’t feel sufficiently confident in their know-how to make final decisions without looking to their kids for reliable, informed answers to key questions.”

Some 84 percent of households with tweens have personal computers, well above the 71 percent of all U.S. households with a PC, according to Simmons Market Research Bureau findings from a study commissioned by Packaged Facts, a division of The report, released last month, showed that the three most common uses for the computer in homes with kids are e-mail, computer games and education (research, doing homework, writing reports and so on). More generally, Packaged Facts also found that 55 percent of kids 12 to 19 years old say they “sometimes or often” determine which brands the household will buy in a given week.

“Most people have a limited space in terms of where their expertise lies,” noted Marston Allen, svp, director for communication architecture at Universal-McCann, New York. “In the home, while every family is different, you can generalize and say that mom keeps the social schedules, dad manages the finances, and the kid programs the VCR. As an extension, kids intuitively adapt the newest technology, whether it’s instant messaging or text messaging.”

These messaging systems are more than just vehicles for after-school gossip: Euro found that kids use them to trade information about the latest tech products. “We were surprised at the level of active dialogue that goes on about such topics as downloads, cell phones, videogames and other products,” Salzman said. And that information goes out to not just dozens of buddies but hundreds.

It’s the same with e-mail lists, said Jason Hovey, a senior producer for Yahooligans!,’s Web site guide for kids. They are networks for sharing social chatter alongside information about entertainment and other practical tidbits that get shared with parents. In recognition of how information is passed along within the family, Yahooligans! in mid-April launched a book club for kindergarten through eighth grade with a three-month sponsorship by Toyota for its 2004 Sienna SUV.

“The book club complements the Sienna launch in helping to communicate with parents through children,” said Deborah Meyer, client marketing communications manager. The interactive site allows kids to design features on the Sienna and e-mail the result to their parents. And Sienna ads will be included in e-mails kids can send to their parents requesting books from their wish list.

Toyota is hoping to take advantage of what consultant Allen calls “the Dell dude” model, which he said demonstrates the most common way kids influence their parents. Those Dell spots “perfectly captured the approach kids take to get their parents to buy a tech item such as a PC or a cell phone,” he said. “They play on the parents’ ignorance of the product and emphasize the necessity of the purchase and the problems it’ll solve: ‘If you buy me this, I’ll be a better student and you’ll be able to balance your checkbook.’ “