Burgeoning Virtual Worlds Build Engagement and Strengthen Brand
Engagement and Its Influence on Toys; Third in a Series
Exploring the 4E’s of 2009 Toy Trends
For many toy brands, virtual worlds are becoming the go-to strategy
for reaching kids online and extending brand recognition. Propelled by
the phenomenal success of Ganz’ Webkinz.com and Disney’s
Club Penguin, toy companies continue to invest heavily in virtual
worlds: game-like web environments where users can create avatars
– a computer user’s representation of his or her alter ego
– in a fantasy landscape and interact with other users.
To prove the pull of online worlds, sales of web-connected toys
(i.e., those with a physical and virtual component) for the 12-month
period ending April 2009 were $446.3 million, down from $465.4 million
the year prior (Source: The NPD Group).
“For several years now we've monitored kids’ interaction
with computers and the Internet, and the various ways in which they're
using them for the free-time activities,” said Anita Frazier,
industry analyst for toys and video games at The NPD Group. “In
just the last year, ‘visiting virtual gaming sites’ realized
a 3 point increase among kids ages 4-14, and now 30% of kids in this age
group engage in this type of activity on computers. The lure of
hanging out in these virtual worlds is very powerful with kids, and
toymakers are harnessing that power and creatively integrating it into
their product offerings.”
According to TIA toy trend specialist Reyne Rice, toy makers and
entertainment companies continue to invest heavily in digital worlds for
their core brands. “The more they capture consumer loyalty, the
more likely fans will click through to play for virtual prizes driving
purchases of both online and offline products,” she explained.
Mattel, Hasbro and Disney have recently added executive divisions
with dedicated professionals who oversee the strategic development of
virtual worlds and web-connected products.
Virtual worlds also offer a unique opportunity to test new business
- An offline product purchase that provides free entry for a limited
time period using a secret code has been the premise for sites such as
www.Webkinz.com and www.Tracksters.com.
- A fee-paid subscription (by month or annually) that includes a
shopping opportunity for exclusive products has been a key to success on
- A new, premier membership model is being explored by a number of
companies, according to Warren Buckleitner, Children’s Technology Review “As the
virtual world business model matures, more creative applications which
provide exclusive access to unique customers are being
explored.” He cites Webkinz Select, as an example of an
upscale toy (priced at $30 vs. $8-15 for base line Webkinz) which
contains a special code which unlocks access to portions of Webkinz.com
not open to its base line customers.
- Many other sites have been developed with a “no-fee”
entry but limited site access to non-subscribers. These sites often
contain a shopping cart where kids can “buy” virtual
add-ons, sometimes for a nominal fee or earned points/credit. In this
model, there are “members-only” areas of the site that
provide exclusive status. One of the most popular destinations is
Mattel’s Barbiegirls.com, which currently has millions of
worldwide subscribers; another example is www.PixieHollow.com, where girls can play in the
magical world of Disney Fairies for free. By buying the
TechnoSource Clickables product, and uploading a secret code, girls can
amass extra fairies’ fashions and accessories to wear online. One
of the most anticipated introductions is Dora Links Fashion Doll from
Nickelodeon and Mattel coming this fall. Dora the Explorer fans will be
able to interact with the "new" tween-age Dora and her school friends,
play games and earn virtual currency. By purchasing offline products
(dolls, accessories and fashions), girls will be able to enhance their
online play with extras in expanded play areas, via secret codes.
- In an open-entry model, players can earn virtual currency and trade
for virtual prizes on Hasbro’s Littlest Pet Shop VIPs as well as
Chaoticgame.com by 4 Kids Entertainment.
The ability to reach young consumers on and offline is also being
explored by video and online gaming companies. Many of these enterprises
already have virtual worlds but are inking licensing deals for toys
among other products, thus competing with toy manufacturers for share of
day, screen time, and share of wallet.
The play patterns designed for virtual world sites are heavily
focused on community, creating avatars, playing games, collecting and
challenges. New models that involve trading cards, strategy, racing,
rich storytelling and other experiences are evolving.
Gaming companies are increasingly introducing massively multiplayer
online games (MMOG’s) – Internet-based video games that are
capable of supporting hundreds or thousands of players simultaneously,
with the ability to build legions of fans. MMOGs can uniquely enable
players to cooperate and compete with each other on a large scale, and
sometimes interact meaningfully with people around the world.
“Clearly, technology has changed play patterns forever,”
says Jim Llewellyn, Partner, 10Vox Entertainment, a videogame company
and TIA member which recently entered the toy space with Tracksters.
“The ability to play and interact with players from around the
world in an MMOG format is an amazing experience for kids of all ages.
But, we also believe in traditional play patterns and quality product
that you can hold in your hand. That intersection is what drives our
Hasbro, USAOPOLY and Microsoft (maker of the popular Halo videogame,
which has sold over 20 million copies worldwide) have, through a new
licensing agreement, formed a powerful threesome to bring RISK: Halo
Wars Collector's Edition to market. The new game melds classic RISK game
play with the Halo Wars storyline.
“RISK and its contemporary counterpart, the Halo video game
series, are the ultimate action games on the market,” says Adam
Sblendorio, Game Developer, USAOPOLY.
By combining the two popular strategy games, these marketers hope to
engage Halo fans in an entirely new, yet classic, strategy
Other notable sites showcasing innovative play patterns include
Jacobee Code, a newer site that morphs historical artifacts, mystery and
detective work to create unique stories and an actual physical printed
book with all of your favorite clues and selections; and Kiz Kids, a new
site that encourages kids to explore different worlds and take on tasks
where they learn about different environments, such as jungle, desert,
ocean. Physical products have USB keys that connect kids to these
worlds, and allow them to interact.
As sure as kids’ tastes continue to evolve, the companies that
create products to appeal to these digitally native kids must also
increase their offerings. Success will require tapping into
kids’ desires and natural play patterns, while creating new
digital challenges that meld fantasy with core brand identity.