How Children Can Teach Us About Marketing

Declan Wilson
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Marketing isn’t hard.

Sorry, let me rephrase that. Marketing isn’t hard when you’ve had years of training with two rambunctious, finicky test subjects called children.

That’s right. I’m a stay-at-home dad, as well as a plethora of other things that make up my career. Family and work don’t typically overlap except in one regard: marketing. Marketing is the thing I do to sell my books, it’s also the thing I do to get the kids to bed.

Children are the perfect testing ground for marketing philosophies. They have emotions, wants, needs, and boogers. So. Many. Boogers.

It’s my job as a parent to guide them through these early stages of life not by telling them what to do, but by nudging them along to make better choices for themselves.

In other words, I market the shit out of everything. Food, clothes, nap time. You name it, I’ve sold it.

Needless to say, I’ve seen marketing up close and personal. Not just in theory but in practice. Today I’m sharing everything I’ve learned.

Appeal to Emotion Over Reason

You can tell a kid there isn’t a monster in their closet 5,000 times but the moment you turn off the lights for bedtime, they’ll come running out of bed asking you to check one more time.

As a full-grown adult, we know that there is nothing in our closet besides:

  • clothes
  • clothes we haven’t worn in years but we keep around because we’ll “slim back down” eventually
  • clothes with the price tag on because we can’t decide if we like it or not.

As well as a few other odds and ends. But definitely no monsters.

My five-year-old is a bright kid. He knows how the immune system works and he can do double-digit subtraction in his head. But for whatever reason, he’s developed a fear of the dark lately. Frustrated, I keep telling him that monsters don’t exist, it’s just his imagination, etc. etc. And it doesn’t work. Appealing to his reason isn’t enough.

My wife had a better idea, “just play along.”

She told my son that kids can make “monster spray,” like bug repellant but for monsters. So one evening before bedtime, they concocted a mixture of water, lemon juice (to sting the monster’s eyes), and pepper (to make the monster sneeze) in an old spray bottle. Now my son sleeps with this somewhat delicious-sounding seasoning next to his bed.

And guess what, no more nighttime fears.

What’s the moral of the story? Even though we deal with adults in the real world, emotions trump reason. We’re emotional creatures, our ability to feel a wide range of emotions makes us uniquely human.

As a marketer, you can reason all you want about why your product is better than your competitor’s, but if you want people to buy, you’d better give them an emotional desire to do so.

Limit Your Choices

I never show my kids the list of options on Netflix. Nor do I ever buy more than two boxes of cereal at Aldi. Unlike adults, children have all the time in the world to make a decision. And they will use it.

This isn’t so much of a hack as it is common sense: don’t give your audience too many choices.

A study published in 2000 by psychologists Sheena Iyengar and Mark Lepper found that excessive choice produces “choice paralysis.” When retirees are presented with too many retirement plans, they are less likely to pick one. When convenience stores stock too many candy bar brands, sales fall.

Of course, people like choices. It gives them autonomy and a sense of satisfaction to exercise their freedom. But what exactly is the right number of choices?

Well, that’s going to depend on many factors such as how specific your products and services are. But three choices are a good place to start.

Know Their Identity

Telling my kids to clean up their room is met with deaf ears. My deaf ears, specifically, because of all the screaming that ensues.

However, asking my kids to be “helpers” is magic. Kids love being helpers. That’s all they want to do. Why? Because it appeals to their sense of identity (which they are still forming during these early stages of life).

Funny enough, full-grown humans behave the same way. Although our identities are more fully-formed, we’re always looking for ways to signal or validate those identities.

For example, people are more likely to respond to signs saying “Don’t be a drunk driver” than “Don’t drink and drive.” No one wants to be known as a drunk driver, so they avoid the action.

As a marketer, you must first understand who your audience is and which identity they want to reinforce.

Add a Little Urgency

Marketing isn’t lying, it’s simply manipulating the truth to your advantage.

Parenting is the same way.

Telling my kids that we have to leave the playground because “it closes in five minutes” works a hell of a lot better than “it’s time to go home.” Is it technically lying? Eh…

Kids understand scarcity. Setting a time limit puts a boundary on how much “playing” is left. In doing so, they act. They run over to the slides, then to the swings, then around in panicked circles attempting to suck up the last bits of fun before we head home.

Urgency begets action. A lot of times marketers use a false sense of urgency to get their audience to buy stuff.

  • The cart closes today!
  • This is the last time the price will be this low!
  • Only 10 seats left!

The weird thing is that it works. Yes, you are fully aware that a virtual webinar isn’t bound by physical constraints such as “limited seats,” and yet, you’re still compelled to grab one.

Back in the old days “Get it before it’s gone!” worked just fine as an urgency tactic because, well, things weren’t in abundant supply. But as technology advanced and production methods improved, marketers needed to become savvier.

Apple made sure to showcase the lines outside their stores for the new (and apparently limited) iPhones.

Google launched Gmail in 2004 to new users who could only sign up via invite-only.

Willie Wonka hid five golden tickets to his factory in his chocolates. The world went nuts.

Audiences have grown savvy too and are immune to all the “Hurry!” “Time’s running out!” and “Offer expires.” But that’s okay, it doesn’t take much to create a mere urgency effect. Be authentic, but subtle. Set a deadline. Show limited supply. Create social proof.

Do enough to nudge your potential customer along but not too much to shove them away.

Learn How to Nudge

I have to admit, this piece of marketing genius didn’t come from being a parent. That’s not entirely true, I wasn’t consciously aware of this advice until I read the book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

I highly recommend the book, but if you’re a bit too busy at the moment, here is a good summary of the key learnings.

Basically, the idea is this: if you are in the position of designing choices for other people, how you present the choice is critical. Or what Thaler and Sunstein say, “A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.”

We can as marketers — through choice architecture — gently nudge people to make desirable choices under their own volition.

For example, when government officials were trying to figure out how to get kids to eat healthier in school, they had a few options.

  • Only offer healthy foods and bad unhealthy foods.
  • Do nothing to the food but try to educate kids to make better decisions.
  • Or put all the healthy options at eye level and unhealthy options at the end of the lunch line.

Can you guess which method was most effective? That’s right, option three. By doing nothing to the options other than how they were positioned in the lunch line, the officials nudged students to make healthier decisions on their own.

Now, how do marketers apply this tactic? Well, one of the key tactics highlighted by Thaler and Sunstein is status quo bias. “People have a strong tendency to go along with the status quo or default option.” Or as Nick Southgate elaborates:

“We like to think that people choose the brands we advertise deliberately. In reality, people spend a lot of their time avoiding making active choices. Instead they take the choice that is no choice at all — the default choice.”

There it is. Make choosing for your audience as painless as possible. Make the choice not a choice.

Consider the Onboarding

I’ve had to lay down the law on Christmas gifts: If it has more than five parts, don’t buy it for my kids.

My mom once bought my boys this fishing toy that rotates. It had about 6,000 fish in it and multiple plastic fishing poles and sang that annoying Baby Shark song. I’ve never forgiven her for it.

Here’s what happens when you give a kid a complex gift. You — not the kid — spends most of Christmas morning setting up the toy, demonstrating how to play with the toy, and answering questions about the toy.

I learned this lesson the hard way in my business. For a long time, I thought I could build custom membership websites for clients and simply hand over the keys. Nope. They have questions. Things break. They want to play with it differently.

In other words, before you even create your product for your audience ask yourself: how much work will this cost me after they purchase it?

When in Doubt, Don’t Let Them Buy It

The cost of eating broccoli, at least in one of my kid’s mind, is that it tastes bad. But we still give it to him anyway. We put a little bit of broccoli on his plate along with many other healthy options.

“You don’t have to eat it,” we tell him, “but it’s there if you want to try.”

Your product might not be for everyone, and you have to respect that. Force-feeding your kid something they don’t want to eat will most definitely not entice them to eat it in the future.

The same goes for marketing.

My wife and I just bought our first home and a sales rep from a home security firm just “happened to be in the neighborhood.” He knocked on my front door and little old me, unaccustomed to not living in an apartment, opened it unsuspectingly.

This dude would not let up.

“We just moved in, we need to replace the shingles, I’m not thinking about high-tech doorbells at the moment,” I said.

“Okay, well, our promotion only runs through the end of the month.” Adding a little urgency, touché.

“I’ll think about this later, I’d like to do some research.”

“Can I stop by on Thursday?”

“No, but you can leave me with some literature.”

I probably won’t buy from them. Yes, I know home security is important, but I want to make the decision myself, not have it crammed down my thought.

The lesson is, you aren’t going to win them all. Sometimes you just need to walk away.

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Stay-at-home dad. 9-to-5 escapee. Aldi aficionado.

Baltimore, MD
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