One of our goals here at Research Access is to share the stories of research practitioners so that others can enjoy learning about – and learning from – their experiences. Earlier this week I shared an interview with Elizabeth McLaughlin of the Virginia Tourism Corporation. Today I’m sharing a recent interview I did with Jim Multari, VP of Marketing & Research at PBS Kids Sprout, a children’s media channel here in the U.S. I hope you are enjoying these interviews.
Here’s the interview:
Jim, thanks for taking some time to speak with me this morning.
For people who aren’t quite familiar, tell us a bit about PBS Kids Sprout.
Sure. Sprout is a digital destination for kids two to five and their families and caregivers. Spout is actually a partnership which was initiated back in 2005. At the time, Comcast, Sesame Workshop, HIT entertainment, and PBS really all sat down and each brought unique assets to the table. In Comcast’s side of the world, they had the platforms. Back in those days, video-on-demand was just starting to emerge. Obviously, Sesame and HIT, PBS have amazing gold-standard kids content that parents really trust and their kids love. And they sat down and said, what can we do with all of this? And that’s really the genesis of Sprout.
Sprout launched first on video-on-demand in April 2005, and then later in 2005 the digital linear service as well as the website launched in late September of ’05. Back then, we were in just under 18 million total households. Fast forward six years now, the network has grown, I think, exponentially in many different ways. First and foremost is our distribution. Today Sprout is in over 55 million homes. We have distribution relationships, not just Comcast, but with the majority of other operators across the country.
Our brand is really unique in that we are a kids’ channel, primarily. The content you see on Sprout is really intended for children. We, as I mentioned, bring parents into that experience, and we really are the brand that kids and their families can share together. And that’s the lens that we look at everything through. So whether it’s a new program launch, whether that’s a new marketing initiative, even a research project, we’re always thinking about how parents and kids share this together. And we think that is still, in the growing kids space, a unique differentiator for Sprout.
And what are some of the properties that you display through your network that people may be familiar with?
Sure. We have a significant array of content. A lot is contributed to the business from our partners. So if you are watching Sprout, you’ll see Sesame Street, Thomas and Friends, Barney and Friends, Caillou, Super Why – again, these shows that families know and trust and really enjoy. In addition to the contents that our partners contribute, our take on programming is unique in that we follow the day of a preschooler. And so what that means is instead of watching Sprout and seeing all those shows throughout the day, we look at the world through different day parts.
Tell us a bit about how you got to where you are, what your background is. And did you imagine that you’d be in the position that you are in?
Sure. Now, I certainly as a kid enjoyed Electric Company, Sesame Street. As I got older, I was a big He-Man: Masters of the Universe fan. I loved, loved, loved all of those shows but never imagined I’d be working in television ever really. Well, I shouldn’t say that. I was a communications major, so I guess somewhere back in my mind I thought that.
I really wanted to be a sports journalist, but it didn’t pay all that well. And given where newspapers are going, I’m kind of glad that didn’t work out. But I started out in market research. I was an undergrad in college and needed a little bit of extra money, and I saw an ad for a data entry specialist. And I knew I could type really well.
And so I applied to the position, and it turned out it was a job at a customer satisfaction research company. And back in those days, surveys were still done paper and pencil and in the mail, and they needed a team to actually enter all of them into the system. And so that’s where I started.
And I was with that organization for a year or two before I graduated. And when I graduated, I had gotten exposure to a lot of the work they were doing on the client side. And I stuck on with them as a research analyst ands started to do more of the project management research-type work.
From there, I moved on to an organization called Wirthlin Worldwide in Washington, DC. And Wirthlin was really where I cut my teeth on things like project management, budget management, really understanding the importance of research to marketing and communications. I spent just under three years there and then bounced around with a few other full-service research companies like Harris Interactive and GfK.
And it was at that point that I went back to school. I went to Philadelphia to get my MBA. I’d started at Saint Joseph’s University, really quickly decided that I wanted to seek out experience more in the marketing and communications type of role and connected with a educational research nonprofit called Research for Better Schools. And they had the focus on research. They do a lot of school improvement-type research where they partner with school systems and do pre/post tests on a variety of testing and other academic-type things.
But they were looking to really start from scratch a marketing and communications division. And so I went there because I wanted to really get that from the ground level exposure. Spent just under two years at RBS, and in January of 2006 met the president of Sprout who’s still the president today, Sandy Wax. And Sandy is a researcher, and, as luck would have it, was wanting to start a research department at Sprout. And I started here in early May of 2006 and have been here since.
You’re someone that has a background in research and in marketing. And in my experience that’s a rarity to have both of those things together.
Yeah. It’s a blessing and a curse, I think. But you’re right. It is unusual.
So over your career and maybe into the work that you’ve done at Sprout, how has research evolved and changed? You mentioned paper and pencil surveys. And maybe tell us a bit about the types of research that you’re doing at Sprout.
Sure. Well, we weren’t quite doing paper and pencil surveys when I started at Sprout. We’d gone to the internet by then. But what I would say, to answer your question, describing how research at Sprout has evolved, when we started this thing in 2006 we didn’t have Nielsen ratings, we didn’t have much of anything really, and we had a small budget. And I think that one of the things we tapped into very early on was there seemed to be, when you talked to those people who didn’t know what Sprout was, there was just this emotional reaction to the brand that felt unique.
And what we did quickly was a series of focus groups to really illustrate that. And that piece of research was really a nice springboard into a lot of the other activities that we did in the early days. We relied heavily on our custom research to tell our story early on. We decided that we needed to have an audience panel to really add some quantitative rigor to what we were doing. And so we started something called Sprout’s Viewer Circle, which today is a panel of 2,000 Sprout viewers. And then back in those days, we tapped into it for everything from opinions on our programming, to assess new creative ideas, to support our ad sales team and help them tell good stories about who’s watching Sprout.
We grew and really decided a couple of years ago that to continue to take this business to the next level we needed to have what really is the currency in the ad sales marketplace but also is just a vital audience measurement tool in Nielsen ratings. And we decided to launch the Nielsen ratings in November of 2010.
And Nielsen is really big shift. It was a really big shift for us. But because we had really looked to research to build the foundation of everything that we do, and we had done that since day one. And of course, Sandy’s background as a researcher sets a really good tone with that. Nielsen wasn’t such a seismic shift for us. In fact, today we are doing so well with looking at those ratings on a regular basis to help not just our programming strategy but our sales strategy as well. So we’ve evolved quite a bit in this very short period of time from a research standpoint.
We did a really neat study last year on how kids and families are using touchscreen technology, tablets and iPhones primarily. Nowadays we just redesigned our website and are getting set to do some in-depth usability testing with parents and kids. Remember, we always look to both for feedback. And our research team has also just produced a really, really solid audience segmentation scheme that, from a marketing standpoint, helps us really think about who our audience is and where we should go to reach them. And
What’s your approach to researching children? And do you interview them with the parent, or how do you approach that?
Yeah. It’s tricky, because the kids in our audience are two to five. So a web survey with a two-year-old is not going to be very fruitful in terms of results. But we’ve really done a lot of, I think, innovative things over the years. One of the things we’ve done is locally here in Philadelphia we have a children’s museum called the Please Touch Museum. And we’ve partnered with Please Touch now for about five years and have gone over to their facility and have done many qualitative projects with young kids. And it’s really just to get something in front of them and observe their reaction to it.
We always have parents nearby. And oftentimes we find that parents can actually play a really helpful part in the research process because a kid is going to be more comfortable telling their mom what they think as opposed to a strange moderator who’s asking all these questions. So one of the things we’ve done a lot of is we’ll make mom or even dad a part of that process. And if we ask a kid something, we’ll say, go tell your mom or dad what you think, and then they can help us really facilitate the process. But research with kids, very qualitative, but still very impactful and useful in terms of guiding strategy.
Is it primarily in-person research?
Yeah. A lot of it is. One of the things we’ll do from time to time if we are doing a quant survey, we’ll ask a parent for feedback. And one of the questions we’ll ask them early on, if we’re doing some sort of program testing or something, are you watching this with your kid? And if the answer is yes, you can segment that data, see if there’s any differences. And even sometimes if there is a child present, we’ll have mom ask them what they may have thought of a particular character or episode or something like that.
But you’ve got to get really creative to get meaningful feedback from young kids. But it makes a world of difference, because, again, everything we put on our platforms is really designed for them specifically.
And have you dipped your toe into mobile research?
Yeah. Yeah, we have. I mentioned we did a study last year where we really wanted to know how kids and families were using touchscreen technology and iPhones and mobile smartphones were part of that study. And that mobile device has really become a key tool for moms and their families on many levels. And it’s obviously something we’re looking at from a content and a marketing perspective.
So were the data collected on mobile? Or was it the mobile the stimulus? Or both?
Mobile stimulus. We didn’t collected via a mobile device. We have done some limited work on mobile with our live events where we’ve done a survey where on our marketing collateral have had people waiting in line or leading the experience send a text to make it a mobile survey. And we’ve done a little of that, but we’ve not done substantial testing with surveys via mobile.
OK. And some people primarily think of you as a television channel, but as you explained earlier you have multiple points of contact with your customers and with your viewers, the on-demand and the website certainly. How do you approach researching multiple touchpoints like that?
Yeah. It’s really two-fold. We really leverage qualitative research quite a bit and quant, for that matter, so a lot of our custom stuff, to inform all of our platforms. I mentioned the touchscreen work we’ve done. When we really started to make headway in video-on-demand years ago, we did a significant study on video-on-demand usage among kids and families. We’ve done extensive custom testing on our website. And again, I mentioned mobile.
But that’s really part of the picture. We also overlay a lot of that with all of the usage metrics that are out there for every platform. Obviously, Nielsen helps with television, Rentrak does a great job with video-on-demand, and then there are many, many different tools that you can use to inform digital. We look at that holistically. And that really helps inform not only are people watching and how much. The custom stuff really helps you understand what they like, what they don’t, what they wish was different and can help you think a little bit more strategically about how you position your product.
What do you have planned for the next six months to a year? What are you excited about?
Well, my job’s evolved a little bit over the last couple of months. We are starting to make a lot of progress consumer products. In a kids business, you create IP that generates a lot of interest and popularity from kids and families, then naturally those audiences are interested in having product extensions.
So with our Chica brand, last year we did a really successful market test where we offered Chica plush products, and it was overwhelmingly successful. And that brings us to where we are today, which is continuing with the Chica line of products but also thinking about how we might be able to expand in other areas. And we really think that this following the day of a preschooler strategy lends itself well to that world because we think there’s big opportunities in birthdays, bedtime, and really all of these different day parts that are part of kids’ lives. So I’m really excited about where we are and what we have coming on the products side.
Well, it sounds like you’ve met with a lot of success. And I wish you continued success, Jim. Thank you for your time today.
Thank you, Dana. I appreciate it.