Toronto’s Webkinz brings fantasy world to real global market

Webkinz has become a household name in North America by appealing to children with its brand of cuddly, plush animals that come with a key that grants access to a virtual world.

Now the company is hoping it can evoke the same interest internationally.

Pre-teen kids and their parents are very familiar with the plush phenomenon started by Woodbridge, Ont.-based Ganz Inc. in 2005.

Webkinz offer children a physical toy with a virtual world personality.

The toys added a whole new dimension to caring for a stuffed animal. For the first time, children could enter an online graphical world that allowed them to interact with their own pet and those belonging to their friends.

Ganz now has its sights set on a broader market.

Starting mid-October, the Webkinz World Web site will be launched in several more languages starting with French, Italian, German, Spanish and Portuguese.  More will follow.  

The decision was made to meet demand, says Susan McVeigh, communications manager with Ganz.

“Kids in other countries were already getting Webkinz,” she says. “People in North America would be mailing them to their families, or they are sold over eBay.”

Webkinz found international distributors in the U.K. and Australia after people logged on to their Web site from those locations, McVeigh adds.

Now with a Web site that supports European and South American languages, the company expects the same kind of expansion they’ve seen in North America.

Virtual Worlds were made well-known by more adult-oriented worlds such as Second Life.

But  the most popular of virtual worlds – and the most commercially successful — have been those targeting the tween age group. Disney’s Club Penguin and Mattel’s Barbie Girls are just two examples.

The success enjoyed by these virtual worlds is a result of striking the right balance between two other Internet phenomena attracting many users – social networking and massively multiplayer online games, according to Steve Prentice, vice-president at Stamford, Conn.-based consultancy Gartner Inc.

There are still goals to achieve, but the overall focus is on user interaction with like-minded friends.

“The reason children’s virtual worlds have been so successful over others that are more adult-oriented is the common focus on the user,” he says. “If you go to Webkinz, you know that everyone else you meet on the virtual world also has a Webkinz toy, and that’s something you share in common.”

Webkinz also offers something unique amongst its competitors – the link of the virtual world pet to a physical object in the plush toy, the analyst adds. Having that animal sit next to the computer monitor helps children make a strong connection.

“You have the virtual substantiation of something that you can touch and feel as well, so that brings the two things together and creates an immediate relationship,” Prentice says.

Not surprisingly, the strategy has spawned a lot of copy-cats. Many companies are now exploring the physical-virtual product model, McVeigh says, with Webkinz counting 150 Web sites – either launched or in development – targeting teens or younger this year.

But Webkinz was one of the first to develop a complete virtual world for tweens, she says.

All of the production for the virtual world was done in-house, with a vision of creating an immersive experience that allowed children to play in ways they enjoy. Not bad for a family company that competes against the likes of Disney.

Ganz is now operated by Howard Ganz, grandson of the co-founder. The toy company got its start 58 years ago when Samuel Ganz made a prototype doll and his sons helped him market it. It wasn’t long before the family landed licensing deals with Disney and Sesame Street to become one of the country’s top toy companies, known for its strict safety standards.

Today the company has offices in Atlanta, Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Shanghai. A large team of artists dedicated to Webkinz creates new content for the virtual world on a regular basis.

The focus on safety remains. It has to, says Gartner’s Prentice, as the real-world challenge of protecting children has become a top issue of concern for virtual worlds that cater to the young. Parents need to feel secure in having their children interact with strangers in an online setting.

A big challenge for the operators of kids’ worlds is there isn’t an easy technology that can identify an avatar personality with a real person, Prentice notes. Our society, he says, has many ways to prove someone is older than 18 – a driver’s license for example – but no way to prove someone is under 14.

“I think we’d be naïve to believe there are no bad people on these sites,” he adds. “But active moderation makes it extremely difficult to use [them] for bad intentions.”

Children sign up for Webkinz without giving out any personal information – no e-mail, no surname, and no phone numbers are typed in.

The site’s messaging tool is also designed to keep kids safe. KinzChat works via “constructed messaging” – pre-written sentence options are selected and sent between friends. By choosing from more than 900 sentence fragments, children can have a decent conversation, and be guarded against the “bad guys.”

Now those pre-written messages will include several new languages.

“Kids like to play, no matter what country they’re in,” McVeigh says. “Kids with friends in other countries can make play dates and visit each other’s homes and send messages to each other. It’s a great way to cover distances.”

Webkinz isn’t the only virtual world to operate in non-English languages, Prentice says. There is growing interest in Latin American and China that is pushing the growth of other language-based virtual worlds.

“Kids now make friends all over the world,” he says. “They meet them on vacation and talk to them over the Internet.”

In fact, virtual worlds have proven to be more popular outside of North America so far. There are more European users of Second Life than North American ones, the analyst says. That means Webkinz will likely continue to enjoy success in its international ventures.

As the Webkinz generation gets older, they will have heightened expectations of the new social networking venues available to them, Prentice says. They’re not likely to accept going backwards from a near-3D environment to a flat, 2D environment currently offered by Facebook and MySpace.

“We’ll see an increasing demand for virtual worlds catering to teens,” he says. “This is a generation that’s grown up with HD video, online video gaming, and is used to manipulating on-screen avatars.”

Webkinz doesn’t have to worry about their users growing older and leaving their plush toys to languish at the bottom of the toy chest, Prentice says. There will always be new youngsters eager to enter the community.

But perhaps Ganz will get the idea that creating a new sister-virtual world geared to older teens could help keep some of those users coming back.

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