Sesame Workshop - and its comms strategy - has evolved over its 40-year history to reach children, parents, and potential donors.
On August 11, Sesame Workshop, the nonprofit educational organization that produces Sesame Street and other children's programming, launched its redesigned Web site with a greeting from Elmo, its furry red superstar. The video, which will change every weekday, is one of many features on
sesamestreet.org that follows two years of research. A star cursor surrounded by smaller, glittering stars when it rests on something clickable helps its target visitor, the 2- to 5-year-old preschooler, navigate the site easily.
“When you look at the launch of the new Web site, that in many ways is so similar to what we did 40 years ago,” says Workshop CMO Sherrie Westin. “We're trying to do for the Internet what we did with [TV].”
Founded in 1968 as Children's Television Workshop, Sesame Workshop has evolved significantly over its four decades of teaching and entertaining kids. Season 39 also debuted on August 11 (the show began a year after the Workshop launched), and now the ways to get to Sesame Street have branched out to home video, on-demand, podcasts, and the Web. Still, the Workshop clings to those brand associations that have made it a childhood fixture for so many the world over.
“In the past five or six years, we've returned to our roots in terms of mission-driven, need-driven media,” Westin says. “Every single year is a new season and a new experiment.”
The Workshop provides an early education outlet for kids, particularly those without access to preschools.
That also means offering timely resources to children and their families, like those outreach programs to military families that feature the Sesame Street Muppets, but are separate from the show.
“It's an ever-growing process to get the word out,” says Pam Hacker, Workshop publicist. “We're experts on child education, but we depend on partners and advisors to distribute [materials] directly into the hands of the target audience.”
Talking to moms
In addition to children, the group also targets moms. Along with free videos and games, the site has a PlaySAFE function, which keeps kids from wandering to other sites when left alone on the computer. And celebrity guests on the show are meant to entertain parents as much as kids. These elements keep the Workshop relevant in changing times.
“The end product is going to the kids, but we need to get the moms and caregivers interested [too],” says Ellen Lewis, VP of corporate communications for the Workshop.
“We want to make sure that people realize we're as contemporary and innovative as ever,” adds Westin.
To that end, the 15-person communications team, which works in tandem with all other Workshop divisions, has gone cross-country to promote the site. Most notably, it attended the BlogHer conference in July, an event that drew female bloggers, including the influential “mommy bloggers.” (An exclusive story about the Workshop's BlogHer presence and the new site was given to The New York Times.) With Muppets Grover and Abby Cadabby, a fairy “in-training,” the Workshop transformed a suite into Sesame Street, where visitors got a sneak preview of the site and recorded personal video messages. One mother asked Grover to tell her 4-year-old to stop using a pacifier.
“We just got an e-mail from her,” says Lewis. “It worked.”
The key to reaching moms is trust.
Workshop team members are clear that, despite all of the merchandising, Sesame Street characters are never used to promote the show or toys.
“On any tracking or brand studies that we do, we score phenomenally high on that measure,” says Suzanne Duncan, VP of corporate marketing. “We don't want to erode that trust.”
The team has also boosted the use of the Web in its efforts. The press kit moved entirely online this year and short video clips about the new site have been sent to opinion leaders, such as Congressional members sitting on education committees. A YouTube video featuring pop star Feist singing a parody of her hit “1234,” counting monsters, penguins, and other Sesame Street characters, has been viewed 700,000-plus times in just over a month and was picked up by gossip blogger Perez Hilton.
A big part of the communications team's work is stressing the Workshop's nonprofit status. Despite some of the licensed products, donor dollars are still important.
“It's a challenge from a communications standpoint,” explains Westin. “The average mom assumes that we're commercial because they've seen our products in stores.”
The Web site gives the Workshop an opportunity to delve deeper into e-philanthropy, an effort including a Facebook page that has collected more than 1,000 fans.
“We know that moms are going to sesamestreet.org with their kids,” says Westin. “We want to convert that mom into a donor. It'll be a challenge. We know that's not why the average visitor comes to the site.”
The communications team gets help from its US PR firms: FerenComm, which works on media relations and other PR services; Bender/Helper Impact, which handles home-video PR; and McPherson Associates, which aids online outreach. To boost its global reach, the Workshop also enlists in-country PR firms in places like Germany, Mexico, and India.
“We need to be sensitive,” explains Lewis. “Working with a PR agency there, they know what will work.”
Much like the Sesame Street characters, the communications team continues to educate its audiences.
“Sesame Street is an incredibly strong brand,” says Westin. “When moms hear what we're doing around the world, they're not surprised, but they don't know it. Our challenge is to get those stories out.”
Sesame Street's Talk, Listen, Connect: DeploymentsHomecomings, Changes
Provides support and resources, such as DVDs, to families with young children that are involved in military duty. Launched on April 29, the effort includes a free traveling live show, The Sesame Street Experience for Military Families, which will continue through November.
Here for You: Helping Children Cope with Serious Illness
Through a partnership with The Center for Advanced Illness Coordinated Care (CAICC), the Workshop provides bilingual materials and tips for families and healthcare professionals who are coping with ill children.
The Workshop partnered with Merrill Lynch on this educational outreach effort aimed at 4- to 7-year-olds to raise awareness of global issues, as well as their community participation and understanding about the connectedness among people. An interactive Web site, panwapa.com and other out-reach materials are available in five languages, including Arabic, Japanese, and Mandarin.
Click here to view a video Q&A with Ellen Lewis