Sesame Street is an old and beloved brand and new media are, well, new. How did you find your voice on these still-emerging platforms? And how do you make sure it’s consistent within the larger brand?
Moving to newer mediums is nothing new at Sesame Workshop. We’re more than just a TV show – and have been from the start. Books, LPs (!), magazines, home video, etc. are all part of Sesame’s rich history in media. Maintaining a consistent voice across media is a hallmark of the institution.
The show is targeted at toddlers, most of whom haven’t gotten around to setting up their Facebook or Twitter accounts just yet! So who are you trying to reach and why?
That’s the subject of my @BrandsConf talk, but the short answer is parents, both present and future. We know from research that children learn better when an adult is present. In fact, a lot of our content is written for two audiences – the children, of course, but also the parents. That’s why we have celebrities on the show; it’s not as if the children know who these visitors to Sesame Street are.
Grover made a splash on YouTube recently with his parody of those viral Old Spice ads. Sesame Street characters have also spoofed Mad Men and other grown-up pop culture stuff in recent years. Why is it important for you to engage adults and how big a role does nostalgia play in the popularity of the brand among older demographics?
Sesame Street has spoofed grown-up pop culture stuff for our entire history; it’s just that we don’t remember the parent-directed features of Sesame content that we consumed as children, because it was invisible to us.
And engaging adults is fundamental to our success. I watched the “Smell Like a Monster” spoof with my three-year-old on my lap, both of us enjoying it (albeit for different reasons), and two months later, we’re still able to carry on a brief conversation about it. It’s pretty amazing.
How much room do you have to improvise in your engagements with online followers and friends? Your tweets seem very polished, almost as though they were written by Sesame Street writers (especially when you’re tweeting in character as Elmo or another member of the Muppet cast).
The characters tweet for themselves – I just help them with the keyboard.
In all seriousness, a show writer authors the character tweets, with rare exception. I’ve improvised a few times, on rare occasion making a tiny edit to add some temporal context that couldn’t have been written beforehand. And there are a few tweets I’ve written entirely myself (e.g. a couple Count von Count ones because I like to make math jokes).
@BrandsConf is all about exploring the human voices behind brands on social media. Do you ever find it difficult to separate your personal and professional identities? Or is this point moot given that you’re often tweeting from the perspective of a furry monster?
It’s funny; I don’t think humanizing a brand is, necessarily, the same as putting an actual human personality behind it. Maybe we’re an exception, but look at it this way: Elmo is definitely “humanized,” to any meaningful definition of the word. But he’s not a human – he’s a monster, or, if you want to be a spoilsport, a puppet.
You can humanize something in many ways.
At the moment of writing, @SesameStreet has 278, 244 followers on Twitter, but is only following one account – the Sesame Workshop. Is it fair to say that you currently use Twitter as a broadcast channel rather than a two-way communication platform?
Definitely, and by design. We’re not a service provider like, say, an airline or cable company, so we don’t have to use Twitter as a conduit for customer service. And it’s not really manageable to have Cookie Monster, Big Bird, Oscar et al replying to people on Twitter all day (although it would be fun to try for a day or two).
I definitely monitor all replies sent to us, though, and we look for other ways for people to interact with our characters. For example, we did a fan-driven interview of Elmo timed around the launch of the 41st season of Sesame Street; that went up on YouTube at the end of September.
There’s been much debate over whether the Internet is ultimately making people smarter or stupider (see Shirky, Clay vs. Carr, Nicholas). Given that Sesame Street is fundamentally an educational program, what do you think? Do you see these new tools and platforms – from YouTube, to the iPad – as beneficial to children or distracting?
I’m a big Clay Shirky fan and a firm believer that we should, as individuals, find a better way to use our cognitive surplus (or, some of it) than the things we typically do. (For what it’s worth, I find Carr interesting as well.) The reason why, though, goes back to something Sesame Workshop’s founder, Joan Ganz Cooney, observed almost half a century ago: It’s not if children learn from media, it’s what they learn.
Learning happens whether we like it or not. But the medium isn’t the problem; the content is. My kids love the iPod Touch and play games which are generally educational and built for their age bracket. They’re playing, they’re learning, and they like it. It’s a great combination.
A child’s cognitive surplus – that downtime outside of school or the similar – isn’t going to be applied to writing Wikipedia. It’s going to be best applied playing in a way where productive learning is the intended byproduct.
How has Sesame Street used these new media and technologies to educate children beyond the TV show?
We have a few iPhone applications, a fantastic child-oriented website at SesameStreet.org, an eBook store, a YouTube channel, a Wii and DS game coming out, a robust home video collection, and more. We want to reach children through media; we will be wherever they are.
What are you hoping to get out of the conference? What are you most looking forward to hearing and talking about?
I’m approaching it with an open mind. The best stuff to learn is the stuff you never would have expected to.
@BrandsConf takes place on Thursday, December 2nd in New York City. As official media partner, Sparksheet will bring you original content around the event’s theme, the humanization of brands, and in-depth interviews with conference presenters. Our readers are entitled to a 30% discount on registration by using the promo code “sparksheet” – http://brands2010.140conf.com/register