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14/12/2011 / loyaltymarketingnews

How Disney’s Club Penguin Became the Biggest Social Network for Kids

With more than 150 million profiles and a digital newspaper that’s read almost as much as The New York Times, Club Penguin might be the biggest, most improbably successful social network for kids ever.

Club Penguin is part game site, part educational resource, part social network all centered around a fictional world made up of user-created penguins which act as avatars for the millions of kids (generally 8- to 11-year-olds) from more than 190 different countries around the world.

The site, which is part of Disney Digital and run by Lane Merrifield, the evp of Disney Online Studios, has become a huge success thanks to it appeal to young kids and parents alike.

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Club Penguin is all about creating a digital space where kids can play, participate in events and socialize. The site hosts regular contests, online meetups, “concerts,” digital events (like a site-wide sports tournament), and an official newspaper called “The Club Penguin Times” which is read by more than 1.1 million kids. All of this compliments the informal meetups and list of titles such as Card Jitsu, a simple card game.

These interactions are, however, much different from how old folks use more mature social networks, such as Facebook, Merrifield says: “At least when my kid picks up the phone he only has to say a couple words — Do you want to play?”

Merrifield compares Club Penguin’s success to a swing set in a schoolyard. During recess and after school the swings are swamped but you never see a line during down hours: “A lot of the fun is in social engagement,” Merrifield says. Club Penguin is like a digital swingset where kids can play and gather around communal events.

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It’s also good for parents hoping to teach their kids a thing or two. Merrifield says the site actually helps kids improve their typing, reading and writing since so much of the site is understood through language. Auto-complete and predictive sentences help kids put together simple phrases and even learn new languages. Club Penguin is available in five languages (English, German, French, Spanish and Portuguese) even though about 40% of the users come from the U.S.

All of the in-game signs, instructions and even predictive dialogue can be translated to any of those five languages. Some parents have allowed their kids to play for 30 minutes, for example, if they play for 20 minutes in a different language. It also means that kids from different countries can speak to each other in their own language. The site also has other parental features like a “timer” which automatically limits how long a child can stay logged in.

The site also promotes other lessons in responsibility, like how to take care of pets or keep a job. Players can adopt “Puffles” as companion pets, for example. These pets need to be fed and taken care of otherwise they run away. More than 25 million Puffles were “adopted” this year alone.

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Philanthropy plays a surprisingly large part in Club Penguin. Every year the site donates $1 million to charity. This year it has doubled that amount to $2 million to provide medical care, improve the environment and resources for kids around the world.

The program, called Coins for Change, is actually driven by the users. Players are given a certain amount of coins which they can use to upgrade and buy items in-game. They can also donate those coins to in-game charities. These donations act as a kind of vote. The in-game causes with the most support influence where the Club Penguin team donates its actual dollars. In 2010, more than 3.4 million kids donated more than 12 billion virtual coins to charity. “We wanted to get the kids involved, we wanted them to learn the spirit of giving back,” Merrifield says.

It’s a lesson that parents and kids can both appreciate. “The parents pay, so its really about keeping them happy,” Merrifield says.

Club Penguin makes most of its money off subscription plans which range from $7.95 for one month to $59.95 for a year (about $5 a month). There is also a ton of real-world merchandise that, when bought, can be scanned into the site thanks to unlock codes on every product.

That money helps pay for a ad-free experience as well as a staff of more than 200 safety and security personnel which monitor the interactions and even wander the digital world as one of Club Penguin’s characters (only after going through two to three weeks of training similar to mascot training at Disney Parks).

Club Penguin has all the trappings of a successful Disney franchise — charming characters, vaguely educational undertones and a strong emphasis on merchandise. The site, more than its language lessons and games, is teaching kids how to navigate social networks in a safe way.

It’s a site for kids that satisfies adults for a relatively small fee. And just like a swing-set at recess, Club Penguin continues to draw long lines of wide-eyed users.

(via Mashable)


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