Helenor Gilmour Facetimes her interviewee, a sharp-eyed trendspotter. The smiling face of a nine-year-old girl in a pink bedroom comes into view. After a brief discussion about school and shopping (“boring”), Ms Gilmour steers the conversation gently to the main agenda: the word from the playground.
“When people are talking about fidget spinners [a mini-propeller toy] we’re like, ‘Who cares?’ Whereas at the start they were ‘Woo!’,” says the bouncy girl.
Ms Gilmour notes down the child’s comment before asking the same question of 10-year-old Lola, who confirms that fidget spinners are out but Slime [a viscous colourful gloop] is staging a comeback. Ms Gilmour’s pen moves quickly across the page.
The information gleaned from the girls (Stormzy and Little Mix are hot) and another eight children on the panel, who are each paid £20 a month for a weekly 15-minute chat, will be used to inform content for the Beano’s website and app.
Britain’s longest-running comic, founded in 1938 and best known for its mischievous characters Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx, is taking a bold leap into the digital age, as it attempts to stay relevant to the YouTube generation. As well as the app and website, there is a new CGI animation series set to air on CBBC this year.
Digitisation is big step for the comic’s publishers, Dundee-based DC Thomson, which declines to disclose how much it is investing in its online push.
Last year, the company set up Beano Studios to create, curate and distribute children’s entertainment across different channels, including television, live performances, merchandising and partnerships as well as the paper comic, annual and website.
“Digital-first just doesn’t even begin to describe [today’s Beano readers],” says Ms Gilmour. “They were born with swipey fingers.”
It has meant that Ms Gilmour, head of insight at Beano Studios, who has worked in children’s market research for more than 20 years, has had to adapt her working life. “Kids’ media worlds are fast-paced and much more fragmented than before, so we have to keep up. The panel allows us to be on top of trends immediately.” When she started, she says, media organisations’ research departments were typically based in advertising, supporting ad sales. Now, her role is focused on insights into consumer behaviour, informing decisions across the business, including product development, content and strategy.
As with newspapers, the internet has eroded the comic’s print sales. In 2007, weekly sales of the Beano were 74,419, according to the Audit Bureau of Circulation (ABC). Last year, the average circulation per issue was 34,778. The number of UK children with their own tablet device has increased among five to 15-year-olds, from 40 per cent (2015) to 44 per cent last year, according to Ofcom, the broadcast regulator.
Children’s entertainment is increasingly fragmented. New digital content providers such as YouTube, Netflix and Amazon have eaten into traditional broadcasters’ audiences. This month, the BBC announced an additional £34m for children’s entertainment across the three years to 2019/20, in recognition of the audience moving online.
The Beano’s publisher hopes Dennis and his dog, Gnasher, do not meet the fate of Desperate Dan and his chums in The Dandy, a DC Thomson stablemate. In 2012, the family-owned company declared it would end print editions and move the comic online after sales fell below 7,500 copies a week, a fraction of its 2m highs in the 1950s. Five years ago, The Dandy announced exciting online plans. Today, there is no digital content.
But the Beano’s digital wizards are working hard in DC Thomson’s building on Fleet Street, formerly home to national newspapers. Digital engineers, marketers, creatives and long-form editorial staff are recruited from a variety of backgrounds, including Channel 4, BBC News, YouTube and Twitter. They are creating online games (“Spot the Beano characters from their jumpers”); videos (“How to draw a pug in 20 seconds”); and listicles (“Explanations for the Bermuda Triangle”).
In one video entitled “Truthman is here to save the day from clueless parents!”, a superhero in a glittery yellow mask schools parents in the truth about technology. “Hashtag obvs . . . Dad, you’ve just taken a fast train to wrongsville!” There is third-party content, such as a break dancing gorilla from Dallas Zoo. One of the site’s most popular videos this year has featured Donald Trump with oversized bows in his hair.
There is a broadcast schedule, too, not dissimilar to news organisations, although the Beano works around the school day rather than office hours. New content is released at breakfast time and after 3:30pm, when children come home from school. Saturday morning is another peak time.
Emma Scott, chief executive of Beano Studios, says there is an element of trial and error in understanding children’s digital behaviour. “They’re getting used to memes now, another example of us sort of imposing adult social behaviours on children.” Beano readers’ appetite for short videos is insatiable, she says. One thing that surprised the team was the popularity of quizzes. “You can set them the longest quiz known to man and they’ll keep going through it,” says Ms Scott.
The team had anticipated four questions would be enough. Instead it is 25. “The average number of times they take a quiz is four until they get every answer,” she adds.
Social media is aimed at the parents and adult fans, rather than the junior readers. “About half of [Beano readers] are on Instagram and Snapchat, even though they’re not supposed to be,” says Ms Scott. Sharing in Beano terms has to be “word of mouth in the playground”.
In bringing the Beano into the digital era, the company has had to pick up new skills. A recent advertisement for a Beano audience development editor requested a deep knowledge of animated GIFs, listicles, spoofs and search engine optimisation — as well as ensuring content is easy to find by voice search, because apparently, “Beano kids love Siri”.
Today’s children are “much more sophisticated with a little ‘s’,” according to Nigel Pickard, a Beano Studios non-executive director. He has seen at first-hand the evolution of children’s media, having been ITV’s controller of children and youth programming before moving to the BBC in 2000 to launch children’s channels CBBC and CBeebies. “The rhythm of life is faster for kids. We used to do 30-minute shows, now we do 11 minutes,” he says.
The sweet spot for Beano content of all kinds, he says, is children between the ages of seven and nine. Ten years ago, it would have been for eight- to 11-year-olds.
Gary Pope, director of the marketing agency and children’s media research group Kids Industries, says the competition for this age group is fierce.
He is sceptical that the Beano cartoon could spark interest in the brand overseas: “How is a story from Dundee going to resonate with kids in Miami?” He contrasts it with Peppa Pig, which is aimed at a younger age group. “As kids get older, then the cultural effects make a difference,” he says.
Mike Stirling, the editorial director, is confident about the Beano’s future, and that its child characters are more relatable than The Dandy’s adult ones. “I love Desperate Dan, but he’s a cowboy, and he’s a man, whereas we’ve got Dennis, and he’s a wee boy, and everybody has been a wee boy, or a wee girl. You can have that vicarious mischief through [Dennis and Minnie].”
The Beano team is wary of encouraging children to be glued to devices. While the comic sales are down on a decade ago, there has been an uplift. Subscription sales are up 15 per cent on last year. “Comic subscriptions online, [is] an inferior experience,” says Ms Scott. Kids get snippets of the comic on Beano.com and can subscribe to the ereader app. “The hard bit, obviously in print, is getting kids to buy it.” It costs £2.50 weekly for the comic.
The other challenge for children’s publishers, says Mr Pickard, is that readers move on as tastes mature. “You have to refresh, it’s about making sure the way you present them hasn’t dated.”
He adds: “Parent power is a bonus but not essential.” The legacy of a “heritage brand” like the Beano is that there is “fantastic awareness across age groups” but on the downside children do not always think something is cool if their parents approve of it.
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