I’m a big believer in good research practices — forming hypotheses and then developing plans for proving or disproving them. But sometimes, you have to leave open the possibility for serendipitous insights. One of those times happened to me a few months ago in a strange place, my home. After about the tenth time I had to yank my 10 year-old daughter away from the computer, I checked out what she was doing. Well, she was playing at the Webkinz.com Website. It turns out that this is the hottest thing for my daughter and all of her friends.
If you haven’t been exposed to Webkinz, here’s how it works — you buy a stuffed animal in the toy store that comes with a code, you input the code at the Webkinz site, and then you manage the life of your new animal on the Webkinz site. Well, my daughter and her friends are constantly playing games, nurturing their animals, and interacting with other Webkinz owners in this virtual world. As a parent, I was actually impressed with the Website — the kids have to take educational tests to get points and there’s no way to pass any personal information between “inhabitants.”
WebKinz is definitely a view into the future; here are just a few of the lessons that we can learn from it…
- Social computing will only grow stronger. Forrester identified a growing phenomena where consumers interact with each other through emerging channels that we’ve called Social Computing. This trend explains the growing popularity of sites like MySpace, Second Life, and YouTube. After seeing all of the 10 year old kids flocking to Webkinz, it’s clear that this phenomena will continue to grow.
- Experiences aren’t just bilateral anymore. Given that consumers will get increasingly comfortable interacting with each other through a wide host of mechanisms, companies can’t just think of creating experiences that connect the company with its customers. Firms will need to think about how they help customers connect up with each other.
- “Online infusion” can be a disruptive strategy. Webkinz does a great job of combining a physical product (stuffed anumal) with digital features (online virtual world). It’s also the case for NetFlix with it’s movie selection & queue management capabilities (digital) augmenting the DVDs delivered by mail (physical). To some degree, the Nintendo Wii also crosses this line with it’s highly interactive controllers. Given the high degree of comfort that consumers have developed for doing things online, there are many more opportunities for crossing this physical/digital divide. (In my research report called Five Disruptive Customer Experience Strategies,” I labelled this as an “online infusion” strategy.)
- Ganz is sitting on a gold mine. The parent company of the Webkinz site is Ganz, a privately held company that is headquartered in Toronto. Given the level of “addiction” to Webkinz that I’ve seen, the company has a lot of opportunities ahead.
If you haven’t experienced Webkinz yet, it’s worth taking a look. And if you have little kids, you may not have any other choice!