When kids are the target

The pundits are abuzz with news that Disney will be relaunching Disney.com with a focus on social networking and user generated content. I dug around the Web a bit and found a number of other reactions like Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff’s (via MediaPost):

"For children of a certain age, the assets Disney has are going to attract large audiences no matter what," said Forrester analyst Josh Bernoff. "The question now is whether Disney can foster a deeper level of community engagement on par with the MySpaces of the world."

Actually, there are a lot of questions, but whether they can be "on par" with MySpace is not one of them. Bernoff says:

Bernoff said the single biggest obstacle to Disney’s social success likely will be the company’s attempt to balance kids’ creative freedom with parental controls.

Absolutely agree with this point. This is going to be tricky, but not actually as tricky as you might think. (More on this below)

"Wal-Mart found out the hard way what can happen when you put limits on user expression," he said, referring to Wal-Mart’s failed social network, "The Hub."

Actually, a lack of self-expression was only a single part of Wal-Mart’s massive error. The bigger issues include trying to create short-term social success based around a marketing campaign rather than user interest, trying to hide a contest in the context of a social network, and trying to manufacture "cool" around something incredibly uncool.

Since Wal-mart was one of the first (the first?) attempt by a major brand to create a kid-friendly "social network", there are likely to be many more comparisons like this one to that disaster of a project. Pundits like Bernoff are comparing the new Disney.com with The Hub, they are dead wrong.

  • Wal-Mart was targeting teens, Disney is targeting kids.
  • Wal-Mart designed a horrible site, based on content that was nothing more than a contest dressed up by fake videos of kids acting "cool" (as defined by an ad agency), Disney’s content is inherently fun.
  • Disney is amazingly good at creating manufactured experience, Wal-Mart isn’t.

Disney theme parks are marvels of uber-control of a brand image. Everything, and I mean everything is controlled down to the most minor detail. People flock to Disney parks specifically to be immersed into that experience. The Magic Kingdom is happy, safe, and fun.

The Disney stores mall that were built in shopping malls (and them backed away from) and their current online presence has been anything but an extension of The Magic Kingdom. They lacked that controlled, specific experience that fans clamored for. Disney.com suffered the same fate for years.

This new effort from Disney.com will simply not be MySpace. Thank god. MySpace has generated countless stories on major publications related to how dangerous social networking is for children. When parents today think about "social networks" they think about predators, Dateline stories, and any number of unspeakable acts that their kids might be sucked into. Disney has an opportunity to do something incredible by bringing The Magic Kingdom online, and the only way they are going to succeed in that effort is to exert the same level of control they do offline.

Business success for Disney is dependent on getting parents to recognize that they are making every effort to create a safe environment. They are using traditional media tactics of "broad blast" to try to spread the word about their efforts. I don’t fault them for this at all, and would probably have advised them to do that exact thing.

My guess is that the new Disney.com is targeting 5-12 year olds, with the sweet being 6-10. The way this group uses the internet is radically different than the way tweens or teens uses the internet. There is a far greater contact with parents, often with parental approval being required before even logging on. At this age, parents are still commonly looking to find activities for their children, rather than letting their kids find them through word of mouth. And guess what? Most parents still aren’t social media junkies.

Ben @ Church of the Customer first turned me onto this launch with a post this morning.

Quick — which of these successful social networks was launched with a high-profile media blitz: MySpace, Facebook, YouTube or SecondLife?

The answer: None of them.

That’s why Disney’s plan to have CEO Robert Iger unveil a revamped Disney.com as a kid-based social network at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas on Monday is a bit like taping a kick-me sign to the newest kid in high school.

[…]

Whether it’s for kids, tweens, teens, or anyone after that, I could never imagine doing anything other than a soft launch of a social network.

In the quote above, Ben mentions that with social networking only a soft launch is a good launch. With kids 12 and older, I’d completely agree. But when we’re talking about young kids, the forumla is different. I don’t have stats, but my guess is that a minor fraction of 7 year olds have email accounts, log onto YouTube, post blog entries, and discuss their latest internet find over cookies and milk at nap time. There are exceptions, certainly, but "word of mouth" simply doesn’t work the same way at 6 as it does at 14.

But I say "Go Disney, Go!" Let’s see what you you can come up with. You have all the elements, let’s see if you can pull together a smart implementation.