UNSUNG INSIGHT HEROES: Why Pre-teen POVs are Invaluable & How to Access Them
Marcy Barson, author
COVID-19 drove consumer learning into virtual spaces. As growth specialists with a broad practice (and hundreds of interviews on our calendar every quarter), we embraced the possibilities and welcomed new participants. And to our surprise, we came to appreciate one group in particular: pre-teens. Talking to kids always gave us hope for our future. In 2020, they became the irrepressible insight-sharers our clients needed, well worth engaging on their own terms.
Pre-teens have always been bright, observant and renowned for their unfiltered commentary. But before the pandemic, they were inaccessible during 80% of normal business hours (between their school schedules and their parents’ work obligations). Today, many kids are “attending” school virtually, at least part-time, and far fewer are participating in any after-school activities. They are home and available. And when we connect, they’re incredible.
Unlike their elders, pre-teens are more likely to report actual behavior. They have voices and know how to use them, so they’re involved in countless household decisions. And thanks to their adaptive resilience, they continue to acclimate beautifully to online engagement.
We can’t overstate how our pre-teen respondents rewarded our outreach with powerful insights, driving us to acknowledge them as unsung heroes who helped us understand a hard year. It’s time for more researchers to recognize their value and design new models supporting youth-centric consumer conversations.
6 Principles for Learning with Pre-teens
While kids love sharing their opinions, conversations with pre-teens can’t be “carbon copies” of those we’d have with their parents. We found a few pivots to be especially helpful. By acknowledging kids’ emotional/social development, we succeeded in opening clean lines of frank communication.
1. Engage Kids from the Pre-Teen Sweet Spot
We find kids ages 9–12 to be perfect for consumer learning. They are old enough to be articulate and stay focused longer than smaller children. They can easily recall their younger perspective, as the memories are still fresh (and many have younger siblings or cousins), but they also aspire to be older and can sometimes reveal beliefs about teen preferences.
2. Practice Patience
Kids’ social skills can be clumsy even under the best of circumstances. Now more than ever, with their worlds turned upside down, pre-teens need adults to demonstrate patience with any shyness or awkwardness. When we accept them, they accept themselves instead of disengaging.
3. Let Kids Know They Matter
Pre-teens generally feel like they have little to no control over their lives and that their opinions don’t matter. Open up the conversation by explaining why you’re there, how much their opinions matter to you, and what impact they can have. Pay attention to the powerful emotions and perspectives this can provoke, enabling you to develop propositions catering to authentic needs.
4. Celebrate Pre-teen Empowerment
Kids are hyper-aware of moments that boost their self-esteem. So as pre-teens describe their role-whether in creating a meal at home or deciding which social media influencer to follow-listen closely for examples of people/things that make them feel accomplished. These insights could become central to a brand strategy.
Emily, age 14: “ I feel so professional when I am making eggs-mixing them up! Making them is sort of messy, but I feel professional when I’m making stuff like that!”
5. Treat Everyone’s Input as Separate but Equal
Talking with parents and kids separately can reveal different or even conflicting views. Sometimes, they don’t even agree on relevant circumstantial facts! Welcome these sometimes-puzzling discoveries, as they can reveal new opportunities or shed more light on existing insights.
Courtney (mom to Dylan, age 10): “I had no idea that he eats breakfast at school sometimes-that was a total surprise to me!” Emily, age 14: “I think of morning as a time to connect and talk.” Emily’s mom: “I think of dinner as family time; at breakfast, I am just thinking about what I have to get done in the day.” 6. Embrace Candor
Kids are less inclined than adults to sugarcoat negative opinions; rather than telling you what you want to hear, they’re more likely to offer up unfiltered responses. That’s great — because as researchers, we can learn as much from people’s dislikes as their likes. So even when the conversation feels raw, accept how pre-teens express themselves and only ask for more. Openness to honesty is the most direct path to discovering new tensions and insights.
Oliver, age 10: “During the week, mornings feel kind of slow and mom is kind of grouchy, and I am kind of grouchy, too.” Liam, age 11: “The pictures on this one don’t look disgusting-they’re more real…I feel I can trust them more.” Noah, age 11: “The design looks childish.” Interviewer: “Oh, is that a good thing or a bad thing?” Noah: “It’s a good thing, because that means it’s meant for kids like me!”
For researchers accustomed to adult, parent-centric interviews, conversations with kids may feel strange or startling at first. But it turns out pre-teens are some of the most powerful influencers and delightfully blunt critics out there. When you hear something from one of these kids, you just know you can trust it.
We urge more researchers to dig into the opportunity here. In 2020, by embracing who pre-teens are and talking to them directly, we gained more robust consumer perspectives-as our clients gained smarter growth strategies. Not every campaign targets young people. But when the kids have been consulted, brands can feel more confident that their programs will resonate with the whole family.
About IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS IN THE ROOM WHERE IT HAPPENS is an article series from Bluedog Design’s most creatively strategic minds, launched to engage the many challenges and emerging opportunities facing the business leaders of today and tomorrow. About Bluedog Design Bluedog partners with clients to apply principles of Design Thinking that strengthen their businesses-developing inventive growth strategies across brand identity and engagement, marketing, product lifecycles (prototyping through in-store activation), portfolio management, organizational structure and business operations.
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