The Digital Kids Conference, held alongside Toy Fair this year, featured a keynote by Andrew Sugerman, executive v-p of Disney Publishing Worldwide, who spoke about the company’s digital publishing strategy, including the interrelationship between print and digital formats. “We’re blurring the lines of what’s a ‘read’ experience, what’s a ‘watch’ experience, and what’s a ‘play’ experience,” he said in his address. “It’s all storytelling.”
DPW’s digital publishing activities encompass digital replicas of physical books (e.g., flat e-books), enhanced e-books, and apps. Sugerman points out that the area between e-books and apps is getting grayer, with the former increasingly housed inside the latter rather than in an e-bookstore setting. “We’re allowing users to find e-book titles through our apps, and our business is growing because of it,” he said.
DPW has published 120 apps to date and became the world’s largest publisher of kids’ apps in 2014, according to Sugerman. Monetization is through several models, depending on the product. Some apps are dubbed “freemium” offerings (a free initial app with purchases of additional in-app content); some “paymium” (payment for both the initial purchase and further content); and some are sold under a subscription model.
In his presentation, Sugerman outlined the three keys to Disney’s digital content development. The first is personalization, as exemplified by its new Color + Play Collection, a series of apps that launched with Mickey Mouse Clubhouse Color + Play. Children can digitally color a character, which then interacts with other characters in a digital environment.
“The next iteration involves physical product and digital product,” Sugerman explained, noting that Disney has licensed Bendon to create traditional coloring books that are compatible with the Color + Play apps, allowing characters colored on paper to be imported into the digital space. An upcoming app, Cars Daredevil Garage, will enable children to take a picture of a toy vehicle and bring it into a mobile garage, where they can personalize it.
The second focus in DPW’s digital content strategy is the creation of “expansive, rich worlds” that encompass both Disney-produced and fan-generated content. Star Wars Scene Maker, for older children, lets users reimagine scenes from the film using assets provided, setting up shots and adding words and music, then sharing their scenes with friends on YouTube or other platforms. Star Wars Journeys is a gaming app with embedded storylines, allowing the company to introduce new characters and new story arcs in the lead-up to Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, the new film that will debut later this year.
On the e-book side, Frozen Read & Play allows the user to flip the tablet to influence how the story is told, while Disney Story Central is a “container app” that allows families to download, store, and read e-books. Since its release last summer, the app’s users have read eight million books, and usage growth is accelerating, Sugerman reported.
Finally, the third key to content development is fostering a shared experience. Disney worked with author Ridley Pearson and Kingdom Keepers Insider, the fan community for Pearson’s Kingdom Keepers novel series (which takes place at Disney theme parks), to encourage fans to contribute passages online. The community voted on the best entries, also evaluated by Pearson, and the winning passages are integrated into a series of three novellas. “It was great to see that, on a Friday night, thousands of kids were writing passages for the book,” Sugerman said.
Disney is now taking its digital content development expertise into the educational space, introducing a series of apps under the Disney ImagiCademy brand. Developed with an advisory panel of subject matter, early childhood development, and gaming experts, ImagiCademy is a comprehensive supplemental learning program for children ages 3-8, designed to help them develop a lifelong love of learning. “We want to encourage learning by doing and making,” Sugerman explained.
In addition to offering a research-based curriculum, the company had three goals: to make the program “uniquely Disney” to differentiate it from the hundreds of thousands of educational apps available in the U.S. alone; to encourage a family experience, where parents are notified of progress and can offer a thumbs up for achievement; and to offer connected experiences that merge the physical and digital.
The first two ImagiCademy releases, Mickey’s Magical Math World and Mickey’s Magical Arts World, are typical of the program. Each is a container app with five apps included and more available for purchase; a separate app for parents suggests off-screen activities that reinforce the curriculum, as well as helping them share in their children’s achievements. Future apps in the integrated program will extend to additional subjects and bring in more Disney properties.
ImagiCademy will also include physical products that incorporate the same principles, including books and toys, set for a holiday 2015 launch. An Android-powered Smart Mickey and Smart Minnie, created in conjunction with developer Smart Toys, will recognize what books children are reading or apps they are using, ask reinforcing questions about the story, and adapt as they move through the lessons.
There is likely to be some interaction between ImagiCademy’s apps and physical books, as well, along the lines of the Color + Play Collection. “But it has to be 1+1=3,” Sugerman stressed. “It can’t be a gimmick that doesn’t add to the experience.”
Initially, Disney ImagiCademy focuses on ages 3-5, with expansion to ages 6-8 planned for 2016. The program was iOS-centric at its December 11 launch, with Android expected to follow later in 2015.