How the Toy Industry is Harnessing the Power of Social Media

The second in an ongoing series of articles on strategic marketing and communications.

In a recent interview in Toy News Tuesday, industry veteran Arnie Rubin stated “Beyond the marketplace, we are global by virtue of the speed in which issues traverse the globe.  Between bloggers, Internet news and other global communication tools, the dissemination of information – both good news AND bad news – happens at the speed of light.”

A great example is recent the death of Michael Jackson.  Within hours of the story breaking millions flooded online reading the news.  The LA Times recorded 2.3 million page views in just one hour – more than many sites have in a month.   Twitter saw its number of Tweets double almost instantly.  And market tracker service Akamai reports that overall internet news traffic temporarily spiked over 20 percent due to Mr. Jackson’s death.

“Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook allow us to spread industry news, trends, and tips on hot products to retailers, manufacturers, and mommy bloggers more efficiently,” said Jackie Breyer, editor-in-chief, Toy Book. “While they aren’t a substitute for our print publication, they allow us to reach a more diverse audience more quickly when news breaks.”

Social media is the current communications rage, but caution is the watchword when making technology choices.  For example, Twitter isn’t adored by all. A recent Harvard Business School study reported that a majority of the micro-blog’s Tweeters (90%) weren’t Tweeting.

Some recent questions posed by Cara Wood, Editor in Chief of DMNews are good guidelines for companies and marketers to ask themselves. “Isn’t an engaging, attention-getting fun medium the point? Doesn’t every good marketer seek to interrupt consumers in order to change their behavior? Wood’s personal response was yes – and no.

“The most effective shopping experiences I have had are with mail pieces or Web sites that I’m able to delve into and engage on a deeper level than 140 characters,” Wood said.  “Of course an interrupting offer or a new product “need” suggested by a flashy medium may pique interest initially – but that’s not the environment in which I hand over my credit card.”

What makes your customers take notice – and what is the best way to communicate to them – is what companies should consider.

“Listen first to know who the real audience is before jumping in so that your conversations are truly relevant and engaging,” says Sara Rosales, Vice President, Public Relations at Mattel.

Analyzing what is needed by and what will work for your company is an important part of the strategic communications process.  Research may show that some tools aren’t the perfect fit for a specific company.

“We’re still in the early exploratory phase of integrating social media into our overall marketing strategy but believe it has become critical in increasing brand equity and creating brand evangelists,” said Harold Chizick, VP, Corporate Communications, Mega Brands. 

MegaBrands has recently launched Facebook Fan Pages for their top two brands this year and is working on building momentum before the products launch at retail. They have also been experimenting with Twitter, Flickr and various video sharing sites, and have made great strides in virally building brand visibility and buzz. Chizick noted, “Conversations about our brands are happening online and it’s important for us to participate in those conversations.”

That’s not to say social media is without influence. A study last year by Burson-Marsteller showed that 92 percent of “mom-fluentials” influence the products their family, friends and colleagues buy.

Mommy blogging began in the mid-1990s. Women began writing blogs to seek support from other moms or just to journal about their mothering experiences. It was only a hobby, with no expectations of pay or free products.

As the Web expanded, the number of mommy bloggers quickly increased and the quality of the sites improved.

“Mommy bloggers are looking for deals … which is why they are sharing and connecting,” says one PR pro in the toy industry.

Today, the most popular mommy bloggers get book deals, thousands of dollars worth of free merchandise, and six-figure incomes from advertising.

While there are no hard statistics, BlogHer executives estimate the number of mommy bloggers to be in the thousands. Not all of the blogs are well-written or well-read, however.

In recent years, they’ve organized into different umbrella groups, including Parent Bloggers Network, Chicago Moms Blog and BlogHer, and represent the modern day “soccer mom” demographic.

In the past year, though, it’s the retail companies who have been reaching out most aggressively. Local mommy bloggers can get anywhere from a few to a few dozen invitations every week to review children’s books, DVDs, toys, clothes and other kids’ products. Sometimes the items are sent to them unsolicited, and sometimes it’s stuff that has nothing to do with parenting, like fiction novels.

“With traditional media dying and moms clearly favoring online communications, marketing via social media is no longer an option for toy and children’s entertainment companies, it’s a necessity,” Stephanie Azzarone, president, Child’s Play Communications. “In this economy, it’s more critical than ever to reach moms where they live, which – no doubt about it – is in the blogosphere.”

According to Azzarone, currently, the five top bloggers interested in children’s product reviews are 5MinutesforMom, RocksInMyDryer, CoolMomPicks, Blissfully Domestic and CelebrityBabyBlog. 

However, it isn’t a surefire success story. Sending moms free products or paying them to post positive product reviews can backfire – both for the companies and the bloggers.

Wal-Mart made a famous faux pas last year with its “Wal-Marting Across America” campaign. The company selected a couple to drive around the country, visit all of the Wal-Marts and blog it. The problem was, Wal-Mart paid them to do it, and once that came to light, no one wanted to read the blog. 

The takeaway for all social media is that the content has to be authentic and companies have to be prepared for feedback – which can be good or bad.  Only with the proper consideration will toymakers decide whether to take the risk.