KidSoft developed a survey so entertaining its young readers can't resist completing it

As marketing vice-president of a Los Gatos, Calif., publishing company, Karen Schultz is well aware that her target customers are unemployed, immature, and capricious. She considers this peculiar situation perfectly normal, though. Her company, KidSoft Inc., publishes a quarterly magazine and CD-ROM for children aged 4 to 14.

Club KidSoft's articles, software descriptions, and demos introduce its more than 40,000 members to top educational software. The company is in the awkward position of marketing to customers who are in no position to pay for anything themselves. What's more, a reader might well be a fickle four-year-old with an eight-year-old's vocabulary.

"The parents buy the software," says corporate communications director Maggie Young, "so it's important for us to create an environment in which both parents and kids feel comfortable, especially the little ones. Obviously, if kids don't like what we feature, they aren't going to ask their parents for it." Schultz needed to find a way to elicit meaningful feedback from children, whose opinions of "cool" are always in flux.

Inspiration came from a fitting source: Mad Libs. Since last year, when it launched the magazine and CD-ROM, KidSoft has developed a customer survey that borrows from that word game's fill-in-the-blank format. KidSoft uses the Mad Lib model to make the questionnaires fun for kids and a source of marketing data for the company.

"When kids look at a normal questionnaire with its little cubes and boxes, they're not intrigued," Schultz explains. Her response rate of 5% to 6% is "decent when you know that 2% to 3% is considered good for any general direct-marketing response."

Last August, thanks to kids' suggestions, KidSoft split its software catalog from the magazine, instead of continuing to bind the catalog and magazine as a single publication. "Kids had written to complain that we had too much advertising, but we don't have many ads. So we knew they meant the catalog," says Schultz. The change enabled KidSoft to double the size of the magazine and run more of what readers had requested: how-to articles, games, contests, and submissions from the kids themselves.

The engaging format also attracts the attention of parents and teachers. Parents' suggestions led KidSoft to redesign its software reviews to show more screen shots, graphs, and charts that display notable software features. Teacher feedback persuaded KidSoft to introduce a two-page section, "Cool Schools," that covers top classroom technologies. Another adult-inspired program, Mouse Pals, pairs kids from classrooms around the country.

The customer-survey format Schultz settled on isn't failproof, of course. Open-ended questions, like "Since you asked, here are a few more things I've been thinking about . . . ," leave plenty of room for interpretation, and kids don't pass up opportunities to speak their minds. One reader was glad for the chance to share "how much I hate my math teacher and principal in one; she always yells at us." Though it's not such feedback that inspires new ideas for articles, Schultz is gratified that Club KidSoft has inspired its readers' trust.

Overall, Schultz is satisfied that the kids haven't tired of completing Club KidSoft's surveys. On the contrary, participation has been building, and Schultz expects a dramatic increase in the response rate when Club KidSoft goes on-line, in early 1995.

Schultz's certainty derives from readers like 13-year-old Shannon Manessis of Pinole, Calif., who completed the sentence "I think it would be great if you had . . . " with an appeal for "more forms to fill out like this.

Sample Survey:

Tell It to Us Straight

Fill in the blanks. Tell us what you're thinking. And don't hold back. Don't be afraid to say what's on your mind. Because at Club KidSoft, we will keep your responses completely confidential. It's a promise. Don't wait another second. The first one hundred responses we receive will get their very own KidSoft t-shirt. Now, that's cool.

Mail your questionnaire to:Club KidSoft718 University Ave., Ste. 142Los Gatos, CA 95030or Fax us: 408-354-1033

Okay, so you want to know my opinion on Club KidSoft.

Well, I got my first issue from . . . (the newsstand, school, as a gift, from a friend, some other way, please tell us)

and I really thought it was . . . (okay/totally cool/not too hot)

In fact, on a scale of 1-10 I would give it . . . (number between 1 and 10, with 1 being the best)

Therefore, it should come as no surprise that I would . . . (definitely subscribe/need more time to decide whether or not to subscribe/not in your wildest dreams subscribe)

But, before we get too far along, I think I should tell you a little bit about myself. My name is . . . (first name) (last name)

I am a . . . (boy/girl) . . . who is . . . (number of years old)

My birthday is on . . . (date of birth)

I live at . . . (street address) (city) (state) (zip)

and you can call me at . . . (area code + phone number)

Unfortunately, I have . . . (number from 0 to 10) . . . brothers and . . . (number from 0 to 10) . . . sisters, their names are . . . (names of brothers and sisters) . . . and they are . . . (list ages) . . . years old.

We have a . . . (Macintosh or PC) . . . computer at home and I love playing . . . (list your favorite software games)

Well, enough about me, let's get back to Club KidSoft. I think the top two articles were . . . (name of article) . . . and . . . (name of article)

The coolest games were . . . (name of game) . . . and . . . (name of game)

And since you're asking, I think it would be great if you had . . . (list other things that interest you) . . . in future issues.

Now, on to my parents. So far they have read Club KidSoft . . . (cover to cover/a little here and there/not at all)

Well, that's enough on parents. I think it would be really . . . (great/a bummer) . . . to be a part of the Club KidSoft readers panel -- as long as there is no homework.

Well, thanks for letting me offer my ideas on Club KidSoft. I can . . . (hardly wait/wait until infinity (that's forever) . . . before I sink my teeth into the next issue. And, since you asked, here are a few more things I've been thinking about: . . . (tell us anything you want) . . . (you still have more on your mind) . . . (what, you're not done yet?) . . . (the end.)

Karen Schultz explains how Club KidSoft's opinion survey works for her:

We've reduced confusion by reworking our original scale, on which 10 was the highest score. Kids would write, "I love your magazine," and then rate it a 1, the worst grade.

We're developing ways to follow up on [whether kids say they will subscribe].

We're proud that our membership is 51% boys and 49% girls. In the past, video, technology, and electronic products in general were of interest mainly to males.

We're in the process of developing a birthday club. When it's up and running, we plan to recognize each child's birthday by sending a card and a special offer for software and other items like T-shirts, hats, and mouse pads.

We try to be hip but not irreverent. A few readers haven't liked the way we phrased this [question about siblings], and a couple of kids have assured us that they're happy to have brothers and sisters. We've learned that 87% of our readers have siblings. We didn't want to turn off the 10- to 12-year-old readers when we did an article on early learning products, so we started the article, "Here's a great one for your little brother or sister."

This [question about favorite games] is a terrific way to keep track of kids' interests. We always check the answers against our catalog to make sure we carry all the favorites. And if we haven't already written about a widely cited game, we will.

We get extra feedback about our distribution channels, but occasionally we get answers like "the mailman," "my Aunt Brenda," and "I have no idea; it just came."

Our average reader is a 10-year-old. We gear most of the magazine content toward that average because we know that kids rise to challenges. But 10-year-olds will not do ticktacktoe that's meant for 3-year-olds.

Our subscriber base closely matches the states that have the highest installed base of corporate computers. Florida is in our top five, preceded by California, Texas, New York, and Illinois. We're doing special regional promotions.

About 90% of our readers want to join a panel. We refer to those kids when we're working on articles. When we were writing an article about on-line services, we checked their responses, and we found a reader who uses several. Katherine D'Amato, 13, had written to us about Prodigy. Her experiences on-line ended up being an important part of our feature. We hope to interview the kids who want to participate on a panel and eventually to send them products to review for us.

Our kids definitely prefer articles and programs that let them create or make something. So we don't write conventional software reviews. We demonstrate the really cool things the software lets kids do: make stamps and birthday invitations; plan parties. Last August we had a spread on using the computer to design a street-hockey league, and a more recent article shows how to compute the costs of keeping a horse.

Most parents read [Club KidSoft] "a little here and there" or "not at all," so we've followed up by telephone. We've learned that many kids read the magazine cover to cover and then keep it in their rooms. Mom and Dad never see it. That supported the case for separating the catalog from the magazine.

Our suggested choices [to complete the sentence about the next issue], "hardly wait" and "wait until infinity -- (that's forever)" are supposed to make kids laugh. We strive to create products that appeal to them and we're looking for their true reactions.

Responses [to "things I've been thinking about"] have ranged from "I have a Band-Aid on my toe" to "I hate my math teacher." Kids are very literal, and if we're after specific information, we need to ask for it -- exactly. They're creative, though, and that's the beauty of leaving the question open-ended.

We have a hard time when we lay out a new issue. We can't place the questionnaires on the back of an ad because we have so few. We try to avoid putting surveys on the back of anything with instructions or activities, but it's a challenge. Many kids photocopy the page rather than tear it out.