This is Scruffy.
Scruffy is polyester fiberfill crack. And before the people at Webkinz have a fit, let me assure you, I mean this in only the most positive of ways.
Scruffy was my son’s first Webkinz. Which I freely admit was purchased for him this summer because I am very interested in how kids interact with online social networks. How children interact with these networks gives us the roadmap for how we, as a society — not we, old geezers — will experience online in the future. For one thing, I don’t think advertising will be nearly the show stopper for the next generation as it often is for internet old-timers. (And how weird is that to write, let alone as a concept. Internet old-timers. Ouch.)
Yes, I made my kid a Webkinz user. Little did I know he would become, in very short order, a Webkinz addict. To the point that when we returned from our house in Vermont on Monday, I needed a duffle bag just for the Webkinz. He’s even spent his own allowance on them. OMG.
But why am I writing about Webkinz here on the Roadmap? Interesting as my child’s stuffed animal collection is (not), what does that have to do with marketing?
Here’s what. Hats off to the folks at Ganz, who reinvented a stuffed animal business into a hot Internet destination
Those of you with kids age 6-10 probably already know what Webkinz are. For those of you with younger, older or no children, Webkinz are stuffed animals, purchased at fine retailers everywhere, that come with a code that gives the owner access to the online site Webkinz World for one year from the date of adoption (registration) of the particular animal. Oh, and you get $2000 kinzcash with each adoption. Remember that; it will be important later.
Webkinz World is a virtual world for kids. They dress, feed and play with the online avatars of their stuffed pets. They purchase clothes, food and furniture with their kinzcash, earning more by playing online games and quizzes. There are also activities that kids can only do once per day, encouraging daily visits. Is it possible to earn a lot of cash with the games? Sure. But not surprisingly, the biggest infusion comes when you adopt another Webkinz. Which is why kids have so many of them. And that’s not even counting the trading cards and charms (required for access to the charm forest.) It’s an online world, but the financial model is solidly rooted in physical goods.
It’s like having a money machine in the basement. Without doubt, it willl be a Marketing 101 case study of an old line business that made a successful transition to a (quasi) online model. Certainly breathed new life into the stuffed animal segment. Aunt Mabel may not be online but she can certainly purchase a stuffed pet at the toy store.
Webkinz World is fun. The games are challenging but not impossible, and kids can safely play with other children online. I would give it a big thumbs up as a social network for kids except for two problems. First, the infrastructure just can’t support the volume of kids logging in. Which makes for a frustrating experience for the child. Especially when things go wrong, which is the other problem. For a community focused on kids, its customer support is distinctly unfriendly and works overtime to avoid an actual conversation, email or otherwise, with a user, relying instead on FAQs and automated emails. Not much use when you are trying to console a 7 year old about a lost "Torch Treasure." Not terribly consistent with Ms. Birdy, the friendly adoption counselor.
Apart from these issues though, watching my son on Webkinz World has confirmed some things for me about the digital native population –those that have no "pre-Internet" memory.
First, the commercial aspects won’t bother them in the least. Advertising. Sales Promotions. Contests. No problem. As long as they are being entertained or even educated. As long as the advertising fits with the experience. As long as they are sufficiently rewarded for their time.
Second, much as they may love one experience or world, it is a mistake for the world to assume total loyalty. If Webkinz World is unavailable too long, my son is more than happy to pop on over to Nicktropolis, which, while not as engaging, does a better job on availability. And has Spongebob.
I have no idea how long Webkinz will capture his attention. But for now, he’s having fun, and I enjoy watching him, and occasionally helping him with a game or two.
And btw, I play a mean game of "Lunch Letters."