The way children are accessing Highlights for Children’s products have changed, which has changed how the company thinks about the Web and uses digital platforms.
“Of course, the children today have so many more choices across a bunch of different platforms. But to take it to the higher level, I think we’re competing for time — we’re competing for children’s time today,” says Shelly Stotzer, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Highlights For Children. “Anything that’s a use of their time, whether it’s after school activities, sports, books, apps, computers, TV, all the things that children do today, we hope that they find the time to engage in positive products and stories, things that we reflect in our product experiences.”
Highlights believes there is a place for all its different products, but it’s important to make sure the company reaches children with the content that is right for them in a format that is good for them.
“Sometimes they want to play on a computer,” Stotzer says. “I have a 7 and 9 year old, and sometimes they want to read on their Kindles. Sometimes they want to play on my PC. But sometimes they want to snuggle in their bed with a book, and sometimes they want to read a magazine in the car, and sometimes they want to do a puzzle book at the restaurant. “We believe there is a place for all these things.”
So, how can companies re-position themselves to meet customer needs through all of the different platforms available today like Highlights recognized it needed to do at least a decade ago?
First, Stotzer says it’s important to recognize that the consumer, the customer is in control.
That’s especially true with technology, which changes so quickly. Understanding the needs of your clients — in this case, children — is imperative.
“If they don’t have a positive consistent brand experience, they have a lot of influence. They have a lot of control. They have a lot of opportunity to help you or hurt you,” she says. “I think finding your advocates is important, and listening to those who have some feedback for you is important — adjusting and learning along the way, putting the customer at center, so they have the control.”
Then, start with what you’re trying to accomplish. Don’t think of all of these social channels as one big channel. Twitter has a different place than Pinterest, which has a different place than Facebook and even a different place than Instagram and all the other unfolding new technologies, Stotzer says.
Ask yourself: why are you there? What do you want to accomplish? And that’s what really should drive what you do.
“In our case we have great people who care about kids engaging in our content. It’s a little different than what I’m guessing a different type of organization — a b2b organization, or an organization not focused on consumers or an organization not focused on children — might do,” she says.
Opportunities in social media
The social media space is another chance to have more dialogue with customers. And your social media strategy needs to consider numerous angles, such as engagement, customer service and sales, before launching into it.
Highlights doesn’t see social primarily as a sales channel. It’s about building a relationship, building really positive interactions with customers and being in a space where you are top- of-mind with them.
“If you move beyond just Facebook and you think about Pinterest and other sources as well, there are a lot of families engaged in that space,” Stotzer says. “What we’ve found is that the followers we’ve obtained, or the friends that we’ve earned are very, very engaged in our brand and in our social media content.
“We focus a lot on making sure we’re giving them good content, good information, engaging them through jokes and riddles, getting them to participate by getting pictures and their thoughts on things. We’ve found that the customers who we are engaging with seem very appreciative and it’s growing, it’s growing at a substantial rate.”
Legal and privacy challenges
Stotzer says there always studies coming out to tell Highlights what should be done at different ages and how much times online is good for children. The company wants to be conscious of that as it decides what to launch and in what format.
“We do what’s right regardless of what government regulation says — what I mean by that is of course we’re not going to break law, but in fact we might be more strongly self regulated than the law would require,” she says.
“We always put the children and the family and the long-term customer experience at the forefront of our decisions. And so we are very careful in that space. I want to wake up every morning and feel like I’m doing the right things regardless of what the law says.”
For example, Highlights was one of the first COPPA certified websites, which relates to children’s privacy and ensuring companies aren’t collecting inappropriate information on kids.
“We adopted that way before most because we knew it was the right thing to do,” Stotzer says. •
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Highlights for Children might be best known for its Highlights magazine, which many children — and before them their parents and their parent’s parents — get at school or thumb through in doctors’ and dentists’ waiting rooms across the U.S.
While it’s proud of its past, the company has invested heavily in its future, propagating its brand internationally to reach children across the world. As it grows its presence and its products, the company is studying its customers and consumers, adapting its processes, expanding digitally and aligning its focus on the customer experience.
“We’ve definitely shifted from being a magazine-focused company to putting the customer at the middle of our thinking; we like to think of ourselves today as a family media brand,” says Shelly Stotzer, executive vice president and chief marketing officer for Highlights For Children.
Highlights breaks its audience into two segments: its consumers, who are the children from ages 0 to 12 who use its many products, and its customers, who are “almost anyone who is part of the village of raising a child,” Stotzer says. That includes parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles, teachers, doctors, caregivers and anyone else who is helping raise a child.
“We see people who buy from all demographics, all backgrounds, all different types of professions,” she says. “We definitely have a very diverse market.”
The company has a stronghold in the U.S. market, and has spent the past four years working to establish its brand across the globe. Today the company has a presence in Korea, Brazil, Ireland, India, Poland and China, putting some 4 million products in the latter country this year, compared to a few thousand in years prior.
Reaching all those countries means the company has had to expand its infrastructure, working with local partners in foreign markets to adapt its products to each one’s specific culture and people.
“We find great partners who we trust, we work closely with them to make sure we stay true to our mission, and then we adjust to make sure we’re appropriately meeting expectations and needs,” Stotzer says.
Highlights has also expanded its digital presence, providing children’s content on the Web for the past 10 years, and launching apps as far back as five years ago.
“Each day we learn something new,” she says. “The technology is changing so quickly. It wasn’t long ago that there weren’t many children’s books available in e-book format, but there are today.
“Children are not only downloading them but they’re also borrowing them from the library in a digital format.”
That means the company has had to keep its eye on the market to understand the needs of its consumers.
Putting customers first
Monitoring customer behavior serves multiple purposes for Highlights, such as helping its shift in philosophy from product-centric to customer-centric, in part to improve customer service.
“When we were product-centric, we were focused on how to increase sales or improve the experience within that product experience,” Stotzer says.
The company’s more recent customer-centric approach focuses entirely on the purchase and service experience.
“It says regardless of which product you buy or which channel you buy it through, we want to make sure that the infrastructure we’re putting in place, the processes, the experience is consistent and positive across that entire experience,” Stotzer says.
Illustrating the difference from one approach to the other, she says if someone bought a book from a retailer and they had a question about it, they could call an 800 number. But if that same customer on the same call had a question about a different product, they would need to be transferred or call another number. Today, one customer service staff at one number serves all its products.
“I believe that repeat buyers come from good customer experiences, good brand impressions. What necessitated it was recognizing that if we want to be as successful 60 years from now as we are today, if we’re going to get into all these new products and markets, we need to make sure we do it well.
“Simply saying if I’m a customer of Highlights, this is how I want to be treated, and if I want customers to come back this is what we should expect,” Stotzer says.
This approach is particularly important as the company continues to grow its product offerings from magazines into toys, merchandise, books and mobile apps while simultaneously building on its direct marketing approach by adding e-commerce and retail, all along with developing strategic partnerships in foreign markets.
“By doing so we needed to really pause and make sure every interaction, how we made decisions, how we set up our teams, how we engage the customer really reflected what we wanted it to reflect, which was a consistent, positive, customer experience,” Stotzer says.
Gaining greater insight
Taking that time to reflect led Highlights to establish its customer insights team, which was put in place to not only help the company provide better customer experiences, but also to leverage customer and market data differently.
“We have always done a good job of doing market segmentation for direct marketing,” she says. “We’ve always done a good job of understanding the profitability of our sources.
“But our customer insights team kind of flips that information on its side and allows us to look at who are our best customers across all the different channels we sell through — all the different product formats that we sell, who our best customer is, who is most likely to buy another product once they’ve bought our Hello magazine, who is most likely to transition into our High Five and into our Highlights, but then who also might be buying an app or some other type of product that we have to sell,” Stotzer says.
Highlights’ marketing database tool enables the company to better understand its customers’ experiences and life cycles across all of its products.
“So with the new database, it is structured in a way that the customer view is the first view that we see,” she says. “It provides a lot more flexibility in slicing and dicing that information so we can make good decisions. It also allows us to effectively target the right message to the right customer at the right time through the right channel and allows us to track that in a very visual way.”
The database further allows Highlights to track customer purchases and marketing, which permits more trigger and automated marketing that makes it easier to follow up with the right transactional, sales or content touch point at the appropriate time.
Chasing a vision
The customer insights team also fielded Highlights’ first brand study this past spring. The study was an effort to understand not only what customers think, but what potential customers who aren’t engaging with Highlights today think and how Highlights might change their perceptions over time.
It’s also a step toward helping the company transition from being known primarily as a magazine for children in the U.S. to an international family media brand — “A customer-centric, global, multichannel, family media brand,” Stotzer says.
She says the study was a starting place that established where the company was and compared it to where it wanted to be.
“We really put ourselves up against brands that we looked to as family media brands,” Stotzer says. “In the study, we did not put us up against brands that we felt were our historical competitive set where we might have been the leader in the group. We really wanted to create an aspirational set that would help us understand where we sit compared to those.”
She says she was happy with the results.
“I’m quite proud of what we’re known for. If you look at the characteristics that people think of us, they are right where we want them to be. We’re known as wholesome. We’re known as good for children. We’re known for being respectful. We’re known for a lot of the characteristics that we’ve strived to be known for.”
Highlights will repeat the study annually to track its progress against its benchmarks.
“We have a lot to build from, and that was helpful because there’s so much noise in the world today, you’re not sure where you really sit, but it was really helpful to know that we have a great foundation to build on,” she said.
The company is looking forward to spring boarding from that foundation to the next level.
“The world is a big place,” Stotzer says. “We have plenty of countries and plenty of children all over the world who we can reach with the products we have, and we’re also continuing to add several products a year to our portfolio.
So we need to do all those things while also keeping an eye on the changing digital market and the changing needs of children.” ●
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