When University Brands (UB), a $40-million toddlers' shoe manufacturer in Westport, Conn., recently launched a line of shoes for 5-to 10-year-olds, it joined the swelling ranks of companies actively marketing to children. To reach youngsters, UB followed the example of hundreds of those companies by forming a kids' club.

"Most clubs are propaganda for selling more product," says Jeff Silverman, the 30-year-old CEO of UB, "and I couldn't find one that's free." Silverman took a different approach to launching his new shoe line and kids' club (both called Kids University), by --

* Considering the audience. Many kids' clubs fail because marketers don't take kids' interests to heart. Silverman's club is free, fun, and accessible. For starters, the colorful Kids U. shoe boxes have a riddle printed on the outside; inside there's a key chain featuring a toll-free number and invitation for kids to enroll in Kids University. (The toll-free number is also on the sole of the shoe.) When kids call to join, they receive a Kids U. pennant and, every four months, a newsletter. If they answer the riddle on the box correctly, they're mailed a prize.

* Listening to parents. Before starting the club, Silverman surveyed thousands of moms who'd purchased UB's baby shoes. They asked Silverman to make the club free and to send all advertising to the mothers. He agreed.

* Keeping it educational. Silverman teamed up with a children's book publisher to produce the four-page newsletter's editorial content. The first issue features columns such as "Earth Talk" and "The Creative Corner," which includes art projects.

Silverman says the start-up costs of the club were low compared with the expected payoff. After just 60 days, 5,000 kids had signed up.

"We're getting a valuable database," says Silverman, who estimates that over the course of eight years 28 pairs of shoes are bought for the average child. At about $45 for a pair of Kids U. shoes, the loyal "kid customer" is valuable indeed. -- Susan Greco