Ganz stays social

The maker of Webkinz is finding new fans in the mobile sphere, and preparing to launch two new virtual worlds – one with a target demo that might surprise you

Ganz knows a thing or two about building online social spaces for kids. The Woodbridge, ON.-based company kick-started the
web-enabled toy category with the 2005 launch of Webkinz, beginning with a stable of 12 plush toys that eventually grew to 200.
By 2007, Webkinz had become North America’s “it” toy – a cross between Beanie Babies and the Tamagotchi that left parents scrambling from store to store, trying to find someplace that wasn’t sold out. And they’re still making new friends: Webkinz Signature Collection toys made an appearance at this year’s Oscars, included in the gift bags at the Red Carpet Style Lounge.
Bridging the gap between real-world play and online interactivity, Webkinz toys come with a special code that allows kids to log in to the Webkinz World site with their new pet, where they can fill out its adoption papers, feed it, dress it and decorate its room.
Through the use of their pet’s online avatar, visitors to Webkinz World can also play quiz- and arcade-style games, enter online tournaments and even chat with other kids through “constructed” chat, which ensures no personal information is disclosed.
Although only one Webkinz toy is required to enter the world, once kids are there, the gameplay itself acts as a marketing tool, exposing them to all the characters they don’t have. Limited edition Pets of the Month and impending “retirement” of characters also help drive sales, with the Ganz eStore selling both real-world plush and online-only items.

Not surprisingly, much of Webkinz’s marketing efforts have been focused in the digital realm, including a Webkinz Newz site that promotes new games, products and contests, and a Twitter account that drives to it.
Last summer, Ganz brought Webkinz into the mobile age by creating an app of one of its arcade-style games, Goober’s Lab. Available for iPhone, iPod touch and iPad, the game reached number one in the Kids Game category of the App Store, and #6 in the Puzzle Game category, and was soon followed by a second release, Polar Plunge. Two more apps were released this year, with more to follow.
Not only do the apps drive awareness of Webkinz to a market who may not have encountered the brand, they also allow players to generate KinzCash, the virtual currency of Webkinz World (typically generated by playing games, answering trivia questions or adopting new pets), which can be transferred to their online account.
“KinzCash is an important aspect of the Webkinz gaming experience as it gives kids the opportunity to participate in the Webkinz economy,” says Tamara Horowitz, VP, interactive marketing, Ganz. “Members use their KinzCash to purchase food, clothing or decorative things to feed or clothe their pets or decorate their homes.”
Although Webkinz World is geared towards boys and girls aged five to 13 (with a Webkinz Jr. site for kids three to six) Ganz has found that adults have been getting into the game too.  
Combine that fact with the popularity of online social games ranging from Second Life to Farmville and it’s not hard to see why Ganz is setting its sights on a whole new demographic. Tail Towns, set to launch this spring, will be a multiplayer online world targeted at women.
“We decided to launch Tail Towns because there is an absolute gap in the market,” says Horowitz. “Experts estimate anywhere from 40 to 60% of online gamers are women.”
“Webkinz World is a robust site targeted to children, so we look to provide the same quality of experience with female gamers — many of whom are already huge Webkinz World devotees,” she says.
Tail Towns players will gain entry through the purchase of a collectible figurine of a woodland creature representing their online character (think Precious Moments meets Fantastic Mr. Fox), sold in gift and specialty stores.
Unlike Webkinz World, adult players in Tail Towns will be able to chat freely with each other while they explore the virtual landscape, completing various quests. A press release on the game hints at adult themes: “Even Tail Towns has its dark secrets. You will discover and explore tangled tales of forbidden love, true romance and hidden treachery.”
While it remains to be seen how Tail Towns will fare with adults, Ganz is also reaching out to the demo it knows best by building a new multiplayer online space for kids aged six and up.
“Amazing World will be based on the proven play pattern of discovery,” Horowitz says. “Through a series of quests, kids will play and level up through the many different tiers of Amazing World.”
Though most details are being kept under wraps, Amazing World is scheduled for launch this summer, with the purchase of a toy once again providing entry.
But Ganz isn’t leaving Webkinz behind. This year, it’ll launch the brand’s very first television ad in select U.S. markets, with creative by youth-focused New York agency Posnick Plus and production by Toronto-based Buck Productions.