In Overhaul, Disney.com Seeks a Path to More Fun
LOS ANGELES — The Walt Disney Company, concerned that its main Web site is not entertaining enough, is moving once again to overhaul Disney.com.
It will be the second recent makeover for the company’s marquee site, which is still the top Internet destination for children’s entertainment but faces increasing competition from players like Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and WebKinz.
The changes, scheduled to take place over the next few months, will introduce more free video to the site (including full-length movies like “Finding Nemo”) as well as more games and things for visitors to do with their cellphones. For instance, little girls (or bigger ones) who create fairy avatars in a virtual world called Pixie Hollow will be able to use their cellphones to create pet butterflies for their fairies.
“I’m going to want to use my phone to feed and love my butterfly all the time,” said Larry Shapiro, executive vice president for mobile content. “That kind of emotional vesting is what we’re after.”
No longer will the site ask youngsters to navigate through categories like “Movies,” “TV” and “Live Events.” New options will include “Games,” “Videos” and “Characters” and will emphasize how to find immediate entertainment.
It is also no accident that video search pages will look similar to those of YouTube: Disney designers worked to incorporate certain YouTube hallmarks, figuring that kids had grown accustomed to viewing Web video in that manner.
“It’s a repositioning of our digital front door,” said Paul Yanover, executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online.
The effort, code-named “Project Playground,” is the second retrofitting of Disney.com in as many years, reflecting both the difficulty the media giant has encountered online and the whiplash-fast pace at which the medium is evolving.
The previous changes, a much more complex effort that first appeared in January 2007, was intended to capitalize more fully on hot franchises like “Hannah Montana” while making the site easier to navigate.
Those modifications, which included the addition of social networking capabilities, have been considered a success, increasing monthly unique visitors to Disney.com by about 40 percent, according to the Internet audience measurement company comScore Media Metrix. In May, Disney.com attracted about 28.4 million unique visitors, enough to rank as the No. 1 Web destination for children and family-oriented Web sites, albeit by a slim margin.
But the effort was too modest, particularly in the area of Web video, says Steve Wadsworth, president of the Walt Disney Internet Group. “Our initial instincts were right,” he said. “We just need to take it much further.”
Of particular concern for Disney is how long the average visitor spends on its site. In May, the average user spent 44.9 minutes on Disney.com, according to comScore. In comparison, Nickelodeon’s cluster of family and child-oriented sites kept May visitors busy for 79.8 minutes, mostly because of the game site Neopets.com.
With the changes, Disney is trying to position its Web site more as a place that entertains and less of one that exists to promote Disney wares. Video is the central component of the effort. Two weeks ago, Disney.com started streaming one free full-length movie a week and holding special events, like Monday’s streaming of “Camp Rock,” the latest Disney Channel musical. (Disney said that “Camp Rock” broke a company record for unique visitor traffic.)
Until now, the site has mostly offered video clips and episodes of television shows. But more original video is on the way. For instance, recent visitors to Disney.com saw a humorous video of the retired astronaut Buzz Aldrin clowning around with a Buzz Lightyear doll.
Mr. Wadsworth and his team are also working harder to link cellphones and Disney.com. So far, the company’s mobile offerings for youngsters — notably constrained by the slow adoption of next-generation handsets in the United States — have centered on casual games or personalization items like ring tones. But Disney now sees an opportunity to create an immersive experience that spans from the Internet to the cellphone.
Consider Pixie Hollow, an expanding virtual world on Disney.com that is built around Tinker Bell. (Visitors create a fairy avatar and then mingle with others in a fantasy world, playing games and decorating make-believe houses.)
In the coming months, children will be encouraged to log on to Pixie Hollow with their cellphones, which they can use to create butterfly pets for their avatars — which they can’t do online.
Scott A. Ellison, an analyst with IDC, a Virginia market research firm, said that mobile offerings like those would help Disney gain a competitive edge. “I think what they’re doing is really advanced and will be very compelling to the target demographic,” he said.
(By BROOKS BARNES – NY Times)