What Would Grover Do?

Lessons on the Art and Importance of Engaging Parents from Sesame Street

Earlier this month, Sesame Workshop unleashed a (Cookie) Monster when it announced a new broadcast partnership with HBO, a decision that was met with a wave of concern and support, not to mention some pretty funny mashups from people who grew up with the show.

For the record, I personally believe that Sesame Workshop is responding to changing technology and consumers’ media habits. Still, I found myself wondering: Why do so many people care deeply about the fate of a children’s program anchored by a big yellow bird and a grumpy green guy who lives in a trashcan?

Blame your parents.

For more than 45 years, Sesame Workshop has earned the reputation of being the world’s most trusted and respected children’s media brand. Watching its trademark show is an essential part of childhood for so many, along with The 5-Second Rule and laughing at the word “Poop.”

But while no one can deny that Sesame Street has done a masterful job communicating with young children for decades, their real secret to success is their effectiveness at communicating with parents.

When The Beetles sang “Letter B,” they were singing to parents. When Sesame Street spoofed Mad Men to teach kids about different emotions, they were connecting to parents. When Big Bird sang “Everyone makes mistakes,” they were sending parents a message too. Today, Sesame Street is estimated to have reached more than 74 million parents and caregivers worldwide.

Each year, U.S. foundations and nonprofits are spending billions of dollars on youth-centric programs aimed at improving children’s wellbeing. But if you really care about reaching children, Sesame Street has taught us you have to focus on parents as well.

Here are a few best practices I have learned from my Sesame Street Muppet friends and a few other parent-engagement pros:

Help parents solve real-life problems.

More than anything, Sesame Street has shown us the best way to win the hearts and minds of parents is to understand the challenges they face and to help them meet their needs. The biggest need Sesame fills is peace of mind. Parents know Sesame Street is a safe show for kids, and even teaches valuable age-appropriate skills that help them grow up. Sesame has also designed special tools to help parents navigate the day-to-day challenges like meal times and bed times, or difficult topics like what to say when a family member dies or is incarcerated.

Other Examples: Common Sense Media reaches more than 100 million homes by providing ratings of movies, TV shows, video games, apps and other media in terms of their age-appropriateness and educational value. And Great Schools provides moms and dads with one-stop shopping online for information about schools in their area. More than half of all parents in the U.S. now use Great Schools as a resource.

Meet parents where they are. 

Once upon a time, you could only watch Sesame Street when it aired in the morning on local PBS affiliates. Later, Sesame Workshop put programs on videotape and DVD. My kids know Sesame Street today because I’ve shown them clips on YouTube and downloaded digital versions of their books on my iPhone and iPad.

As the ways to consume media have changed, Sesame Street has evolved too. Additionally, while Sesame Street teaches timeless values and lessons, it has continued to integrate timely material into its shows over the years — like issues of diversity and race, 9/11, or military families with a parent deployed overseas. (And of course, celebrity guests who would be popular with parents.) That’s why the show has remained relevant for generations.

Fun Fact: One of the best places to reach parents today is on Facebook. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, 75% of parents on Facebook log onto their accounts daily and 51% log in multiple times per day, often to get information from other parents and share good news.

Have a specific ask. 

Sesame Workshop is one of the many partners in Next Generation’s Too Small Too Fail campaign, which is working to close the vocabulary gap between children. The campaign makes one universal ask of parents and caregivers: Talk, Read, and Sing to your children. Because Too Small Too Fail focuses on one practical behavior change, it is very easy for lots of different partners to spread the message to parents. That includes allies with incredible reach to parents like Scholastic Inc., Kaiser Permanente, and Univision. Too Small Too Fail even got the message out in a recurring subplot on the popular television show, Orange Is the New Black.

Bottom line: If Too Small Too Fail made too big or broad an ask, they would never have succeeded.

Harness the moral authority of parents. 

There are some things Sesame Workshop doesn’t do. Like advocacy. For that, we have to look elsewhere for insights. Exhibit A is Mothers Against Drunk Driving, which used the moral authority of moms to save the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. In its first two years, the group passed 129 anti-drunk driving laws. Within 10 years, they got all 50 states to raise drinking-age limits. Within 15 years, they were ranked by The Chronicle of Philanthropy as the most popular charity/nonprofit in America. None of this would have happened had the name of the group had been Citizens Against Drunk Driving.

Another Example: MomsRising amplifies the voices of parents on a wide range of issues, from family leave to health care to school lunches. They boast over 12,000 blogging moms who collectively reach an audience of 3 million parents.

This post originally appeared on ComNet’s blog leading into ComNet15.