If Facebook opens its wildly popular network to pre-teens, it may not resist the urge to monetize the millions of new users it stands to gain by lowering the minimum age through advertising. Marketers and agency executives are split as to whether the move will facilitate a new channel for brands to target and advertise to children, but most agree that Facebook could fulfill a largely unmet need by simply creating a popular and safe place for children online.
Access to a wider, younger audience on Facebook could open a vast untapped opportunity for brands, but if advertising is part of the mix it would also open another door for privacy advocates and regulators to chastise the site for putting advertising revenue above child privacy. Currently, Facebook only allows kids over 13 years old to join in the fun, but there are already untold millions of younger members who joined by providing a false age.
Facebook is developing technology that would allow pre-teens to use the site under adult supervision, according to a June 4 Wall Street Journal report, but following its messy initial public offering and years-long battle over privacy controls, some are wondering if this might be more trouble than it’s worth.
“I think Facebook is certainly willing to take that step. They’ve certainly been brash and bold,” said Paul Kurnit, professor of marketing at Pace University and founder of KidShop, a marketing and communications firm specializing in targeting kids. “It’s just too big an opportunity for them to get it wrong. The opportunity for Facebook, the opportunity for marketers is just huge.”
Facebook has an opportunity to enable kids as a community to promote a healthier lifestyle, said Kurnit. “The ante in the game will be to get parental permission. Once you have parental permission in the online space, the ability to relate to kids, market to kids and collect data on kids opens an entirely new frontier,” Kurnit said. “I fully expect within the next three years the face of marketing and advertising to kids will change dramatically,” he added.
“Fundamentally, there is no Nickelodeon of the Internet. There is no safe, all encompassing place where parents can be sure their kids will be okay and brands can ensure exposure in a reasonable way,” suggested Josh Koster, managing partner at Chong + Koster, a firm that has handled online ads for children’s brands. “If you don’t give kids a safe place to hang out online, it’s worse for everyone involved. Even if Facebook never runs a single ad to kids, there’s a need for somebody to create that space. And honestly, they could monetize that platform just by using the data to help improve parental targeting.”
In other words, kids’ interactions on Facebook could inform targeting of ads aimed at their parents.
Koster believes Facebook can effectively leverage data on children under 13 years old without ever crossing the line into advertising or brand targeting. Parents are one of the most valuable targets to market to throughout the country, and Facebook could create tremendous value by effectively linking parents to their children online, he said. “I’d be more surprised about the ad product than the social network for kids. I honestly don’t think they need the ad product to monetize,” he said.
Besides, almost every kid will eventually turn 13 someday, and when they do Facebook could begin targeting and advertising to them immediately, Koster added. There is little to suggest that Facebook plans to make money off children through advertising and targeting, and as a result, none of the marketers ClickZ spoke with were willing to discuss how they might use Facebook to target kids directly. In fact, most marketers, agency executives and brands don’t even want to touch the subject.
Though there are very specific rules about how to market to children under 13 as a result of the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act of 1998, Facebook already has a reputation for pushing the envelope on privacy by frequently changing user controls and confusing them with unclear language.
Brands are going to be uncomfortable targeting children on Facebook anyway, said Adam Broitman, chief creative strategist at Something Massive. “From the agency perspective, what is my incentive to…recommend that one of my clients be at risk in this environment where someone might get upset?” Broitman asked. “Facebook ads have worked great for us in many ways, but I feel that it’s not great enough that I would take a chance losing a client.”
Broitman doesn’t necessarily specialize in marketing to children under 13 years old, but he did target the age group during a campaign for Right Guard and he is gearing up for a campaign for another brand targeting pre-teens in the coming months.
“It is something that would be very valuable to brands to have this channel, this connection, but the more that I think about it, these channels do exist,” Broitman said. “I think a lot of brands may not want to touch this,” he continued, adding that there are safer means to target children online.
Kevin Ryan, founder and CEO of Motivity Marketing, takes a more positive view of the changes reportedly coming to Facebook. There are sophisticated means for protecting children online, Ryan said, and he’s confident in law-enforcement agencies’ ability to reduce the impact of predators to the extent where it won’t be an issue for Facebook and kids.
“Marketing to kids has always been the same way – you get the kids hopped up on it and then the parents have to validate,” Ryan said. "I think there’s a really good opportunity to responsibly market to kids on Facebook, much in the same way kids are marketed to now.“
Brands who want to market to children under 13 on Facebook, should do so in a largely positive manner, Ryan said. Interactive nutrition applications or other healthy-lifestyle campaigns that drive awareness about primarily indisputable issues will move the needle in Facebook’s favor, he said.