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Since 1996 the Children’s Helpline has been collecting information on telephone traffic, and since 2008, it has been doing the same for online chats. This creates such a unique source of data that researchers from across the globe have expressed interest. Marketing professor Willemijn van Dolen studies how Youtube can influence consumer behaviour and how waiting times can affect consumer satisfaction rates.

Prof. Willemijn (WM) van Dolen, professor Marketing

It may not look like the most obvious source of data for marketing research, but Willemijn van Dolen, professor of Marketing at the UvA’s Amsterdam Business School, has worked with the Dutch child helpline since 2000. “I learned about them when I shared my expertise in the area of online chatting. Since then I have done considerable research on child helplines. Of course I think they provide a valuable service. From a researcher’s point of view I see them as a business and I analyse them from a business management perspective. This allows them to optimise the way they provide their services. They offer a rich source of data. Since 1996 they have compiled all data on caller traffic per month and since 2008 they have done the same for all online chats. I can see how many children have called or chatted, when, what the call was about, how long it lasted, the child’s age and gender and whether the child was referred. It’s as if you know every person who was in contact with a company, along with that person’s age and their reason for contacting the company. A source of data this detailed is seldom encountered and it appeals to researchers all over the world. Researchers from Canada and the United States are also involved in my research.” 

The umbrella network organisation Child Helpline International, with 113 child helplines worldwide, also provides data for research. “We’re encouraging all child helplines across the globe to compile their data so we can use it for international research”, says Van Dolen. She feels there are multiple reasons for why research on child helplines is interesting for marketers. “The research provides information needed to answer the following question: how do you best design and structure your services so that as many consumers as possible – in this case children – can be helped? Because the demands made on child helplines far outstrip their limited resources. Only about 10% of children manage to reach the helpline. Our most recent research relates to the optimum waiting times and the duration of a call. On one hand you want short calls in order to keep waiting times down. On the other hand you want quality assurance. So how long should a call last? We also studied what determines customer satisfaction and the perception of the quality of service from the point of view of children. This research is interesting for the healthcare sector and businesses alike. Children are a significant target group for many businesses and what is unique about the child helplines is that children use this service without the involvement of their parents. This independent consumer behaviour is something we see more often. Look at the purchase of apps and iPads, for example.” 

Van Dolen is also researching how the number of prank calls and chats can be reduced. This type of caller is usually spurred on by Youtube videos and Twitter. Almost 75% of the calls received by the telephone helpline are prank calls while this number is slightly lower for chats. On Youtube you can see videos where children call the helpline as a joke. On Twitter you see tweets stating ‘retweet this if you also made a prank call to the children’s helpline’. We’ve been collecting all these Youtube clips since 2008 and starting a year ago, all the tweets as well. This provides very complex data; we know how many times a clip is viewed daily, sometimes dating from 2008. There are also viewer comments, both negative and positive. You also have likes and dislikes for the video. What I’m looking for is the tipping point; when does it get out of hand? Is the video successful? Will we see an increase in the number of prank calls and chats? What I especially want to know is which clip has the most influence on this type of behaviour and what is it about the clip that instigates these prank calls and chats. This enables the child helpline to determine when to react to certain videos and how to stop them. This mechanism can also be applied for a positive effect. Businesses want to know which viral campaigns are successful and why. What kinds of comments are left by viewers and what is the tipping point where it goes viral? In short: how do Youtube clips influence consumer behaviour? Even if this is based on undesired consumer behaviour, as is the case here. 

Sometimes research yields totally unexpected results. Van Dolen: “Recently our research appeared in The International Journal Child Abuse & Neglect. The results gave us little new information in the field of marketing but there was significant data on the relationship between the economic recession and domestic violence. It showed that as unemployment rises, the number of children calling about violence also increased. An increase in the number of divorces also led to an increase in the number of calls and chats. These relationships had been suggested in the past but had never been demonstrated before using the calls made by the children themselves. What we need to remember is that many, many children call as they try to cope with very serious problems. These are the kinds of findings that are worth reporting. In a time of major cutbacks in government funding it is clear that the children’s helpline has an even more important role to play.”