America Online Inc.'s new service for kids is not child's play.
Since its launch a year ago, KOL has had multiple mandates: drive new subscriptions and retain existing customers for AOL's Internet service and offer sponsorships for advertisers. But the most important task is to improve the AOL 9.0 version experience for children ages 6-12.
“We created an environment for kids,” said Malcolm Bird, senior vice president and general manager of AOL Kids & Teens, Dulles, VA. “Before we had a hub page for kids that led to a variety of kids' sites.”
Until last year, AOL targeted a preteen audience with the Kids' Only Channel as opposed to a full-fledged, feature-rich service. Like KOL, Kids' Only Channel was accessed through AOL. The older offering launched in 1996.
KOL's debut in September 2003 acknowledges youngsters' appetite for more interactive experiences. It also is a response to the competitive environment. Viacom's Nick.com, kids.msnbc.com, the Disney sites and even Cartoon Network, another Time Warner Inc. property like AOL, have bells and whistles appealing to kids.
Visitors to KOL notice a presentation and content in contrast with AOL's earlier children's offering. Previously, that environment was static and heavy in text. Design was lackluster. Color, imagery, customization, animation, Flash and depth to pages were added.
“There's everything from bathroom humor to random noises that kids can explore on their own,” said Erik Rogstad, director of creative development at AKQA, the interactive agency responsible for the KOL changes along with AOL's programming team.
On the back end, flexible templates for programming content are in place. Content and images can be updated daily compared with once a month or quarter, as done on Kids' Only Channel. Fresh content encourages children to keep returning to KOL.
KOL Entertainment lets kids peer into an actor's life with Celeb Diary or preview new movies and television shows. KOL Music lets them tune daily to hear DJ Rick's live show online and vote for the Fresh 5 tunes. At KOL Games they can play online games and get video game previews.
There is also the Toy Time feature, which lets youngsters scan through the latest toys. They can join a Toy Tester Squad to try out new toys. The KOL Bookshelf boasts Mad Magazine as well as comics like Superman and Batman. And children can chat with friends, post a message and share pet information at the AOL-monitored KOL Hangout community area.
Partnerships also contribute customized content, such as from Mary-Kate and Ashley, Sports Illustrated for Kids, Time for Kids, Cartoon Network and Kids' WB. Many partners belong to the Time Warner family. These partnerships support original KOL programming like the Princess Natasha series.
Children can customize their welcome page and tool bar to suit their gender. Themes include jungle, ocean, space and Italy. Kids seeking help with homework can access a collection of online resources, and they can use the Ask-A-Teacher feature.
Subscribers to the latest AOL 9.0 service get the Parental Controls feature built in for KOL. Parents receive a guardian report on daily KOL activity.
AOL staff track and monitor KOL. This is part of the package if parents install AOL 9.0, set up a screen name for their child and activate a kids-only account using the Parental Controls tool.
“In terms of not only keeping pace, but surpassing other offerings on the Web, it was extremely vital,” Rogstad said.
KOL's offerings are gaining traction. Radio KOL generates nearly 500,000 streams a week. One to four kids listen to each stream, averaging nearly 1 million children weekly. Time online has grown from seven minutes daily on Kids' Only Channel to 23.7 minutes per unique KOL account.
Media Metrix found 2.1 million unique visitors to AOL's kids content in August. These numbers do not reflect AOL's narrowband accounts with Parental Controls. AOL has 1.6 million registered kids-only accounts and 1.6 million registered young teen accounts.
“It was certainly a make-or-break from a business standpoint,” Rogstad said. “They had a great base of users in terms of numbers, and they finally decided to take advantage of technology and people's high [Internet] connection speeds.”
KOL has attracted advertisers targeting children. A deal with movie studio Fox placed Garfield, the cat cartoon character, in the relevant KOL area to promote the recent “Garfield” movie. An arrangement with Kellogg Co. opened the KOL Hangout area to an Apple Jacks campaign.
Of current live sponsorships, Nintendo created a microsite called Nintendo HQ with downloads, games and movie trailers. It is currently the sole sponsor of the KOL Games area.
“We've gotten rid of banners,” Bird said. “It's intrusive. There are far too many impressions landing on the kid at once, and parents don't like their kids to get them. But what we do is integrated sponsorships. So if you're a marketer, you can actually sponsor and be the only sponsor of an area on KOL. The kid gets only one impression.”