Dialing Up Kids Again
August 20, 2008
No one can forget the poignant moment in
Peter Pan when
the impish character urges rapt audience members to clap
their hands to bring life back to his favorite fairy,
is hoping that Tinker Bell--along with a collection of
pirates and other Disney characters--can help breath
life back into its mobile phone services for kids.
Beginning in September, Disney plans to roll out a grab
bag of goodies for young cell phone users, including a
mobile storefront, instant-messaging chat system and
virtual world widgets.
The mobile market for children and 'tweens looks like
pure gold to the likes of Disney. For uber-connected 9-
to 14-year-olds, who can't yet drive and might not have
their own computers, cell phones are a lifeline to their
best friends, favorite music and videos and chosen
brands. Market researcher MultiMedia Intelligence says
the U.S. had more than 16 million teen mobile
subscribers in 2007, up 12% from 2006.
Disney executives suspect the sweet spot could even
be younger: Larry Shapiro, executive vice president of
business development and operations for the Walt Disney
Internet Group, estimates that more than 50% of
10-year-olds in the U.S. own phones. And Disney, Shapiro
declares, wants to "own" those mobile customers.
Disney is hardly new to the tricky mobile market for
kids. In June 2006, the company became a mobile virtual
network operator, or MVNO, by leasing airwaves from
Eighteen months later, it shuttered the effort. "We ran
into trouble with logistics and distribution," concedes
Shapiro. Translation: Disney couldn't find enough stores
to sell phones sporting images of Winnie The Pooh and
Even so, the company continued to field a few mobile
offerings, including selling games and ringtones in more
than 70 countries, mostly through partnerships with
mobile carriers. In Japan, cellular service provider
Softbank carries a line of phones with Mickey Mouse
decorations. "We always believed mobile would take off
to the mainstream--that there would be eventually be
more robust devices, better discovery and improved
access," says Shapiro.
Last fall, the company tiptoed back by launching a
Disney-branded mobile Web site. The site is a
clearinghouse for information on all things Disney, from
its TV shows and radio channel to its theme parks.
Disney also started experimenting with mobile marketing
at special events, such as promotions with
for the June premiere of
Camp Rock, a
Disney Channel movie.
Now Disney aims to synch its mobile site with its
online offerings. In September, it will debut a
registration system that will allow users to access
their Disney.com profiles automatically via their cell
phones. A digital storefront--a one-stop online market
for purchasing Disney games, ringtones and
wallpapers--will follow. (Purchases are added to the
buyer's cell phone service bill.)
Disney will also port its "Speed Chat" messaging
system, which is a feature on Disney.com, to cell
phones. Users will be able to send instant messages from
mobile to mobile, as well as mobile to PC. In a nod to
safety, the feature can be programmed to show only
pre-approved words, essentially nixing slang and curses
from the chats.
The plan also calls for mobile games and widgets that
play off Disney brands and franchises. A mobile widget
called "Fairy Friend" puts an animated butterfly fairy
on users' phones. Think of it, suggests Shapiro, as a
virtual pet or Tamagotchi for 6- to 12-year-old girls.
Players will have to feed and care for the fairy on
their phones. The widget will eventually link to a
yet-to-launch Disney virtual world about pixies.
A mobile game connected to Disney's Pirates of the
Caribbean Online virtual world is planned for September
or October. Players will engage in short "battles" and
earn virtual coins that they can spend online at
A number of other products are waiting for a green
light, including real-time mobile polls and trivia
questions for 'tweens watching Disney shows on TV,
mobile phone in hand. Another idea: virtual scavenger
hunts. Parents could use a phone's GPS capabilities to
whip up a mobile map that could lead to a special spot.
GPS could also enable Disney to detect which users are
present at a particular event, such as a Hannah Montana
concert, and automatically send them exclusive content,
such as a new song.
Disney hopes some of its customers will literally cut
their teeth on its mobile products: Inspired by the
success of multimedia toys from companies like Baby
Einstein, Disney is considering making mobile
applications for preschoolers. Shapiro notes that young
children love to play with cell phones and busy parents
may want a mobile "digital pacifier" to entertain them
while on the go.
Bill Ho, research director of wireless services for
market researcher Current Analysis, says the
applications sound age-appropriate but could worry
parents on a tight budget. "Will these features incur
data charges?" he asks. "Disney has to tread lightly on
anything that will add to the family phone bill."
That's one reason Disney is proceeding slowly with
mobile video even though it has a full library of TV and
film clips from hits like the Jonas Brothers and
High School Musical.
Shapiro says Disney hasn't surveyed its customers to
learn details about their service plans but assumes most
are on family plans.
Carriers have started offering their own safeguarding
features. On Monday,
announced usage control features, which let parents
restrict data use and messaging on their children's'
phones and create lists of "trusted" phone numbers.
Sprint and T-Mobile already offer similar services.
Parents looking for more specific programs can sign up
with kajeet, a kid-focused MVNO that uses Sprint's
network, or Firefly Mobile, which makes kid-friendly
phones that run on AT&T.
Shapiro says Disney welcomes the development. "The
more comfortable a parent is with putting a phone in a
kid's hand, the better off we are," he says.
Disney is trying to stay ahead of another trend among
tween cell phone users: upgrades to more advanced
phones. "In 2005, kids would take any phone," notes
Shapiro. "Now they want the iPhone and smartphones."
That's prompted Disney to offer its own iPhone
applications. A card game featuring Disney characters
was released in July. Several more are in the works,
along with an iPhone-specific version of the regular
Ultimately, Disney's mobile efforts are designed
primarily to strengthen Disney's other sectors. Says
Shapiro, "It's about creating a connected media world.
If you want to reach tweens, you need mobile."
Clap your hands--and open your wallets--if you