Disney.com Goes Social To Boost Brand Engagement

Less than a week before the scheduled launch of Disney's social network, analysts are wary of whether Mickey's club can achieve MySpace's success.

"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."

Disney CEO Robert Iger will unveil the new site--heavy with social networking features and video clips--on Jan. 8 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, a company spokeswoman said.

Catering to kids' penchant to multitask online, users of the new Disney site will be able to carry on Web chats while watching video clips, listening to music and playing video games, simultaneously. The company also will offer a broadband tool, dubbed Disney Xtreme Digital, which will allow users to create customized profile pages and share them with others.

But in addition to the array of tools encouraging youngsters to express themselves online, the site also intends to incorporate parental controls--a feature that might ultimately backfire on Disney. 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. "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."



Officially, Wal-Mart said it only planned to host the site for a ten-week stretch during back-to-school season, but analysts like Bernoff attribute the site's closing to a lack of traction with uninspired consumers.

Currently, Disney's online presence is on the rise, according to new data from Brand Keys, a New York-based market-research firm. "We measured Disney's Web reach--compared to all other media--jumping from 5% to 11% from February to December of last year," said Brand Keys president Robert Passikoff. For the study, Brand Keys conducted quantitative polling of some 1,600 web users in the appropriate demographic, said Passikoff.

One successful push by Disney has been its video-streaming site, Disneychannel.com. From "Hannah Montana" to "High School Musical," visitors to the site streamed over 53 million programs from June to November.

While the new Disney.com will come packed with video pre-roll ads and sponsorships, the site's biggest value will likely be as a promotional tool for Disney's numerous properties, said Andrew Frank, an analyst with Gartner Research.

"More than anything else, MySpace's value has come as a promotional vehicle for brands, movies, music and other things," said Frank. "I think the same will be true for Disney's new site."

Disney also plans to sell subscription-based products on the new site, as well as DVDs, brand merchandise, travel packages and tickets to its national parks.

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