Interviewer: Esther Kezia Thorpe

Esther: Can you explain what the Beano Digital Network is, and what your role is as part of that?

Lydia: I’m the Head of Editorial at the Beano. So, I work across Beano Digital Network, which is basically everything we do online for kids in this age group, and it’s centred around Beano.com where we host videos, quizzes, games, and we also host the interactive comic side of the site.

Esther: And what is the age group now that Beano targets?

Lydia: So we’re focusing on six to twelve year olds.

Esther: And I think a lot people would know the Beano from the really well-known print magazine that’s been around for however many years now.

Lydia: 81 years!

Esther: So how does the digital network work alongside the print brand?

Lydia: Yeah so, it’s really nice actually because obviously the comic has been going for such a long time, and it really resonates with kids of that age. So what we’ve done is we’ve taken the spirit and the DNA of the comic and applied it to other stuff that kids are into in this generation.

So it’s taking that spirit and just looking at what’s going on around now, while still supporting what the comic’s doing.

Esther: And your team – I presume you’re an adult team – how do you get a sense of what kids are actually really interested in, rather than just what their parents or you think they’re interested in?

Lydia: So, we have an amazing insights team at Beano, which is what my favourite part the job is. So we have the Beano Brain, which is our collective name for all the pieces of insight we do.

The primary bit of that is that is our trend spotters. So we have a panel of kids that we speak to on a weekly basis over a long period of time as well. So we really build relationships with those kids, and they tell us what they’re watching on YouTube, what’s happening in the playground, what they’re hearing, what they think about the news as well.

So, we start to get a really good picture of what the talk of the playground is, and having that alongside some of the other research we do, so we do a lot of school visits as well.

So we’ll go into classrooms and we’ll do interactive creative workshops with kids, and that gives us the chance to actually talk to kids directly. And all of that feeds into all the editorial decisions we make.

Esther: And is the brand still – because I remember I used to get the Beano when I was little, all the kids were very naughty – has it still got that kind of ethos, are parents alright with that now?

Lydia: Yeah, so we are still cheeky and rebellious, like cheeky and rebellion and mischievousness is what is in our DNA. So, we’re still doing that.

And the way I like to think of it is that if we can do something that a teacher doesn’t kind of want to show in the classroom because it’s a little bit too much, it’s the line we want to be at. So that’s the fun bit.

Esther: Okay so not graffiting skate parks or anything.

Lydia: No no no. All the right side of the law!

Esther: A lot of publishers are turning to data to guide those editorial decisions. So how does that work with you guys, and that Beano Brain?

Lydia: So, one of the challenges we’ve got is that unlike grown up publications, we are quite restricted in what we do online in terms of data capture, quite rightly so.

Esther: It’s under 16 you’re not allowed to capture much is it?

Lydia: Under 13. So we are a COPPA compliant site, which means that we follow regulations that are in the US that really protect kids online, particularly under 13 year olds. That governs what we can and can’t do.

So we have polls and quizzes on the site and we can get some information from that, but aside from that it’s all completely compliant and COPPA is actually quite a rigid process to abide by. It’s the highest mark that you can do. So, we’re pretty secure in that.

Esther: Are advertisers alright, do they understand that you can’t gather as much data as you could if it was an adult site?

Lydia: Yeah absolutely. Part of the reason why we’re COPPA compliant is that a lot of companies or brands we want to work with would rather work with a site that is COPPA compliant. Because then they know it’s trusted and safe for kids.

Esther: I suppose you’re not going to have brand safety issues that other websites have. One of the one of the big things I read recently is that you got ahead of the Fortnite curve by four of five years. Can you talk us through how you did that?

Lydia: Fortnite was a really interesting one. So we spotted it, I think it was November 2017. And we got the first mention from our trend spotter kids, so it came up briefly, one of them mentioned they were playing it. The following week, one of the other kids said, ‘Oh everyone’s talking about this game.’ And we started to get these trickles of mentions.

So, what we did was, we started looking into it ourselves, and we started producing content. And what we did was, we looked to really understand what it would be that kids would tap into about the game, and why it was blossoming in the way it was.

Esther: I’m surprised it was blossoming among that age group. I thought Fortnite was a little bit older.

Lydia: It is, it’s rated 12. So it’s a touch older, but actually what it does is it’s done it in a really great way. It was a free to play game that was really accessible. It’s peer-to-peer driven as well.

So, it really was very open and accessible to kids, and it’s a really positive game. It does a lot of strategic thinking and cooperation. There’s a lot going on there that’s fun.

What we did was, in the team that we have we had a few gaming experts, and they looked at it and they were like, ‘You know what, I think it’s the dances, the dances are really really cool, because the dances all reference stuff within pop culture and nostalgia.’

So we did an article, which was Fortnite dances in real life, explaining where the dances came from and the references. So it’s stuff like Fresh Prince of Bel Air, Scrubs, all these things. So we did that, and that piece of content is still performing really well for us.

Esther: Of course they’ll be too young to remember a lot of that.

Lydia: Yeah exactly. And it was a lot of people going, ‘What is this going on?’ And just wanted a bit of an explainer. I think we published that maybe an the start of the year, like March time.

It wasn’t until about late May I think, further on in the year, when we really saw a lot of the YouTuber influencers picking up on Fortnite, and that culture circle that was going around with it where, you’ve got the dances in the game, the footballer doing dances to celebrate, and it just connected it all up.

Esther: How are kids actually accessing a lot of this digital content these days? Are parents just leaving them to browse the internet, or is it a bit more of a controlled environment?

Lydia: I think it varies. It varies very much on the kids you talk to and their parents, but there’s a lot of self discovery, and a lot of that is driven by YouTube I’d say. We don’t see a lot of Google searches going on, actual search engines. If kids want to search for something, they tend to go into YouTube to search, which I find quite interesting.

We see a lot of Google around homework. That’s what they see it as, is a homework tool, it’s quite a challenge.

Esther: In that case the video trend must have been massive for you guys, are there things you’ve done to get on board with that?

Lydia: Yes. So we publish video on YouTube as well as on Beano.com. In the initial stages, because I was here at the very start, we were more focused on writing article content, listicles, heavy in gifs, that kind of thing.

And we realized that kids in this environment will not be willing to read that much. They read, they read books all the time at school, and they read for pleasure, but when they’re accessing a digital device, that not interested in it. They haven’t got that attention span. So it’s video content that really resonates with them.

One of the first things we started doing was producing, essentially our news articles and stories in video form to make it more engaging. And that has since evolved and we do a lot more than that as well now.

Esther: I read in a recent Drum piece that 55 percent of under 10’s are now creating video content. How?!? Where has that come from?

Lydia: It’s because it’s so easy and so accessible. We see it a lot with our trendspotters, they go ‘I’ve got a YouTube channel that does this, and I post it for my mates,’ and it’s really interesting what they choose to do.

One of the things we have is that we obviously do a lot of quizzes on the site, which perform really well, really engaging format for kids and they really enjoy them.

And we had one quiz that just sort of ballooned overnight out of nowhere, which was The Ultimate Wengie Quiz. Wengie is an Australian – I think she’s Australian – YouTuber, very unicorns, very brightly coloured, she’s pretty cool. Out of nowhere our traffic to that page was huge, and we realised because Wengie herself took our quiz in a YouTube video. She was like, ‘These people have made this quiz about me. I’m going to see how well I do. I’ve got to give it to my boyfriend to do as well.’

So that was really funny because it completely happened organically, we made no effort to contact her. She just found it and played it, and then subsequently got loads of kids coming to the site to do it.

But also we’ve got loads of kids going on YouTube and then uploading themselves taking the quiz too. It’s a really strange circle.

Esther: That’s kind of like the new selfie isn’t it, you video yourself doing things.

Lydia: Exactly. It’s really nice and it shows that a lot of this stuff can be really positive for kids. Really teaches them a lot of creativity, and that identity that they can get through that.

Esther: A lot of them would be better at video editing than most of us!

Lydia: I know. Absolutely. We need to worry about them!

Esther: Are there ever occasions, especially with kids influencers, that you think, ‘Oh actually, maybe we won’t get on board?’ I know Pewdiepie was fine five years ago, and now suddenly you can’t touch him.

Lydia: We take our responsibility very seriously in terms of who we’re promoting or talking about on the site. So we will look at some YouTubers that kids are talking about, and make an editorial decision that we’re not going to cover them, which can be quite hard when they’re all talking about them.

But the way we need to see it is that if a kid comes to the site and then sees us talking about them, and you go to their YouTube channel, what’s the first thing you see there?

We’re not encouraging kids to go there, but just by having them in our content, it’s a level of us talking about it. It’s a tricky one that we have to keep on reviewing and keeping on top of, but there are some we avoid.

Esther: Just around YouTube itself there’s been a lot of criticism this year with how safe an environment it is for kids, because a lot of them don’t use the kids version of the app. How do you guys approach brand safety and producing content around a time like this, are there specific things you do or don’t do when putting things on YouTube?

Lydia: Yeah, we abide by COPPA for Beano.com and we use that learning and structure for everything we do. We take it very seriously that we are a brand with an amazing heritage, and we’ve really trusted by a lot of parents. We would never do anything to risk that. So we make a lot of cautious decisions, and thoughtful decisions about what we do and don’t do.

The way I see it is that we want to be a safe haven for kids in this space where there is access to an awful lot of stuff that isn’t appropriate for them, or is concerning. So we can be a trusted brand in that space.

Esther: Do you have comments on videos and things like that?

Lydia: No, we don’t on Beano.com.

Esther: Is there any two-way interaction with the kids?

Lydia: No, I think that’s part of COPPA that we aren’t able to do that. We would do it more in a user testing format. So we often test our content with kids, we’ll do that where we get kids into the office or we’ll speak to them, and we can get a reaction to what the content is.

Esther: That’s where people end up in problems as well, is where they end up enabling comments

Lydia: Yeah absolutely. And that’s definitely something that we can’t do under COPPA.

Esther: Your Chief Marketing Officer said a while back that the Studios weren’t led by character, it was led by trends, and you said about what was going on in the playground. But the print magazine and the characters have always been very character-driven. So how do you keep those two lined up, if kids spot trends in certain areas, but you’ve still got these really strong characters.

Lydia: Yeah I mean that’s what’s incredible about the comic is that those characters have been around for so long, and they’ve been around for so long because they really resonate and they still do, which is incredible. And what we want to do is make sure that those characters still resonate to kids today.

We do feed trends back into the comic, so we’ve done a few themed issues of comics and themed stories. I think there was one about Toy Story recently, and there was a Fortnite one as well, so that stuff does filter through in its way.

And then we have the rest of the Digital Network is talking about those trends more directly in a Beano way.

Esther: You’ve invested a lot in original video content. What are some things you’ve invested in when it comes to video?

Lydia: So we have a multi-skilled team here who produce a lot of the content in-house, so we’ve got a range of presenters, writers, animators, and we work with all of those guys to produce some of the content we’re doing.

We’re doing a lot of comedy sketches, a lot of animal content at the moment. In terms of video content, we’re focusing on movies, gaming and animals at this stage.

So we’ve done a lot of sketches, and then also we’ve done a lot of going out and meeting animals and interviewing them with a fake news reporter, that’s been really fun.

We did some stuff with stock footage of animals where they animate over it and they tell jokes. We also do some challenges that are more like the stuff you see on YouTube. We do video quizzes as well.

Esther: It must be quite weird if you’re sitting there and thinking, how does this look to an adult, but actually you’re doing it for a child!

Lydia: Yeah. And I think because we spend so much time with the insights, and we get reports from the trendspotters every week, and we’ve got to know them really well, it means that we are always thinking with that audience in mind.

One of our key mottos is that we are always kid-first. So when we’re looking at content and we’re reviewing the ideas and I’m reviewing videos, I’m thinking, actually what would a kid think of this?

It takes a while to build up that understanding and knowledge, because one of the really interesting things is understanding how you can talk about stuff. We’re known for being a very cheeky brand. But there is a certain level that kids won’t tolerate, but we would probably do so more.

So where you can push the boundary a bit more with certain grown up brands, we have to be a bit more cautious because kids are quite sensitive to that, they’re very sensitive to bullying, they don’t like their idols to have the mickey taken out of them too much.

Esther: I’d have thought it was the other way around, I’d have thought you could push the boundaries more with kids?

Lydia: No you can’t. That’s something that we’ve – and I know the comic has got a long history of doing this and really understanding very well where that line, and is what you can and can’t do – and it’s something that we’re also finding our feet with, is knowing how kids are going to react to this.

And it’s not necessarily in a way you’d think, and it’s about making them feel comfortable as well, and the joke’s not on them, and it’s not all the people they idolise.

So it’s those kinds of sensitivities that when you start working with kids content and kids comedy, really starts to come out, but they take a while to pick up.

Esther: I suppose the print brand is mainly UK, but with the networks, you’ve presumably got a global reach? Does that humour translate across borders?

Lydia: Yeah we’re finding it does. At the moment, we are the UK’s fastest growing kids website.

And then also we’ve had a huge growth in the US in the last two years. We’re focusing now on producing more content for the US, so we’re doing some more quizzes, and we’re starting to do comedy sketches over there with a US producer, which is really interesting because it’s going to be understanding the humour.

We’re in the initial stages at the moment of producing that content, and then we will test it and see how it performs. But the indications we’ve got is that everything we’re doing on Beano.com is resonating and we have got a really strong US audience.

Esther: It’ll be strange for some of those people that that’ll be their first interaction with the Beano brand at all.

Lydia: Oh absolutely because in the UK the awareness of the Beano brand is something like 90 percent, its huge. In the US, nothing. In the US, Beano is a fart pill essentially, bizarrely it is slightly connected to us because that is what it’s known for.

So if you start having those conversations in the US, that’s what people immediately think. So there’s a bit of explaining to do about who we are and what we do. It’s a challenge.

Esther: And if you had to pick a favourite piece of work you’d done since the Beano Studios launched, do you have a favourite piece?

Lydia: There’s an awful lot. I think we probably have about 2,000 videos or something at this stage over the three years, so there’s an awful lot to choose from.

One of my favourite strands that we’ve done a few of is Secret Life of Animals, where we’ve taken stock footage of animals, and then we’ve animated it over them and given them voices and characters. When we’ve shown that in schools, the reaction is amazing. The kids just love it, and it’s so lovely and joyous, and it works every time, because kids just want to see a zebra farting, it’s really funny!

And I think it’s definitely worth mentioning that everything we produce we love ourselves, and we find funny ourselves, so we never want it to be that we’re patronising kids, or talking down to them, or dumbing down our humour. It’s just that we make it more relatable for them, but we still are rolling around laughing in the office when we make something good.

 

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