Unless you've had your head wedged firmly under a rock, or have been traveling through some unreachable outback for the past five years (where there are no televisions, computers, cell phones, landlines, newspapers, smoke signals or two tin cans connected with a string) you are well aware that the online world has been attracting a new and growing following among tweens.
While tweens in general may have less access to the Internet than teens and adults, more and more are turning to the Web for entertainment. With toys like Webkinz and Bella Sara that are designed to not only promote products for sale in stores but also create an online community for a tween clientele, it is clear that manufacturers are trying to increase their presence beyond the toy store. With the success the Disney Channel has had in gaining tween viewers, it seems only logical that Disney would push their highly interactive Web site into community building and grow their online presence through moves like the purchase of the tween site Club Penguin. While television has previously been the primary screen for tweens, it seems that there's a major shift happening.
Neopets is the perfect example of a Web site that has been so successful with tweens that it has actually been able to market toys and other merchandise based on the online characters. Launched in late 1999, the virtual pet site quickly gained an impressive number of players. After being able to offer excellent advertising opportunities, Neopets realized they were ready to branch out beyond the Internet. They began selling plush toys and T-shirts and partnered with other large corporations to distribute their merchandise. This crossover presence is what distinguishes Neopets from other popular tween game destinations, and what made the site so attractive to Viacom, who purchased it for $160 million in 2005.
While Neopets is an online site that expanded offline, there is also a growing trend of toy manufacturers doing just the opposite. Webkinz, a toy from Ganz, is a stuffed pet that is first bought from a store. Each toy comes with a unique online activation code that you use to create a virtual pet on the Web site that corresponds to the store-bought toy. On the site, tweens can feed, play with and buy things for their virtual pets. They then have the best of both worlds: a toy to hold on to, as well as the endless possibilities provided virtually.
Bella Sara is another toy that functions on the same principles as Webkinz. Especially popular among tween girls, Bella Sara is a trading-card game centered on mystical horses. Each card has a beautiful image of a horse, a positive message and an activation code. After entering the code, a stable is created and the trading cards are integrated into a virtual world. The Internet has become an effective means of creating the magical environment essential to a game like Bella Sara.
No stranger to reaching tweens, Disney has become something of a consumerism training bra. The Disney Channel airs unqualified hits like Hannah Montana, High School Musical, The Suite Life of Zack & Cody and The Cheetah Girls. Actress Miley Cyrus, who has replaced Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears as the new tween idol, rose to stardom playing Hannah Montana on television. As her career blossomed, she began to pursue a singing career, which subsequently took off. The Disney Channel's official Web site was instrumental in establishing a fan base for Miley Cyrus. The Hannah Montana main page contains features for promotions, games, fun quizzes, exclusive video clips, downloads and an option to e-mail the characters on the show. With these extensive features available for almost all of their TV shows, Disney provides an engaging online community for their tween viewers. For tweens who are more interested in movies than television shows, Disney has carried over the formula to promotional sites like the Pirates of the Caribbeanpage, where a free membership lets young fans participate in online gaming.
Companies are seeing the Internet as the perfect space for integrating beyond promotion by incorporating Web games into the product experience, with success stories like Webkinz and Bella Sara demonstrating the potential of connecting a toy in the physical world with a virtual world of unlimited possibilities.
Tina Wells is CEO of Buzz Marketing Group. (firstname.lastname@example.org)