AdAge, G. Parker's new favorite ad magazine, reports that Disney just spent $350 million to buy Club Penguin, an ad-free sort-of-social-networking site aimed at kids 6 to 14.
Those of you without kids in this age range have no idea how big Club Penguin is with kids in this age group.
But I'm wondering if Disney bet on the wrong pony here. Club Penguin's biggest competitor is Webkinz™, and if the Tadpoles and their friends are any indication, it's Webkinz by a mile.
Webkinz is one of those ideas you kick yourself for not thinking up. It works like this: you go to the store and buy a Webkinz stuffed animal for around $10-15. And not just any store. Webkinz are only sold in Hallmark stores and other non-traditional locations, thus ensuring scarcity.
Now once you have your Webkinz, you go online and enter the secret code that's in an envelope stitched onto the animal. You name the animal and set up a room for him/her in your Webkinz house. You need to feed and play with your animal to keep it happy by buying food, toys and furniture from the Webkinz store. You buy this all with KinzCash- virtual currency you earn by playing games in the Webkinz arcade. (The Tadpoles all seem to know which games earn the most money for the least effort)
There's no end to how tricked out you can make your Webkinz house and what accessories you can buy. You can also talk to your friends (or make new ones) online, but only via a series of about 2 dozen canned comments-- no independent chat allowed. You can also send a gift to your friends in the hope they'll send one back to you.
I actually find it educational in that it teaches them money management and responsibility-- each Tadpole currently has about a dozen Webkinz and they're quite good about logging in and taking care of their virtual pets. (You also have to remember to log out: it seems a friend of theirs logged out leaving her Webkinz on a treadmill and came back to find it quite ill and in need of a visit to the Webkinz Clinic. For real.)
But when I tell you guys it's huge, it's an understatement: every one of their friends seems to have at least a dozen Webkinz and everyone I work with who has kids that age seems to be in the midst of this mania as well.
Now I'm not sure if Webkinz has actually surpassed Club Penguin (a fully online experience that does not require any offline purchases), if my town is part of the "Webkinz Belt," if there's any sort of socioeconomic factor involved in which one you go to, or if Webkinz (which is newer) is Club Penguin 2.0.
I do know, however, that this is another evolution of social media, one that's evolved specifically for tweens. And that if I were the guy who came up with it, I'd be one rich Toad.