Let the Memories Begin: Disney embraces social media even more, I drool a little

If you read some of the tweets from Disney’s most hardcore (mostly Florida-dwelling) fans yesterday, you’d have thought that the company emptied a big barrel of acid over Cinderella Castle while they were forced to watch, thunderstruck. In fact, what really happened is that expectations were not managed all that well. You can argue til you’re blue in the face over whether Disney should know better than to announce a marketing campaign as if it’s a major upgrade to the parks or whether the fans should know by now that Disney always does it this way but both of those would be missing the point in a major way. In fact it is an exciting announcement for two reasons: firstly, it’s a fun addition to a holiday – something I think it’s much easier to appreciate if, like me, you can afford to go every few years, not weeks – and secondly and more importantly, it’s a major adoption of social media on a massive scale.

The campaign is called Let the Memories Begin, and it’s a two-part strategy. The new holiday element is the inclusion of a nightly slideshow projection onto Cinderella Castle (WDW) or It’s A Small World (DL) of photos of revellers taken around the parks; something that was derided as a ‘screensaver’ by some fans. The even more social element is actually an advertising campaign; users submit video, photo and text content about memories made at the parks, and Disney selects and uses these in its advertising. One TV commercial has already been constructed with submitted videos.

To find out more you can:

Read the full press release and view the video at The Disney Blog (an excellent site for considered commentary).

Visit the dedicated pages for uploading etc at www.DisneyParks.com/memories

Why were fans disappointed then? Well, there had been rumours of a Monsters, Inc. coaster at the Studios (and of all the parks, HS needs the most revamping) or the addition of Spain to the World Showcase in Epcot. But those rumours probably didn’t account for the fact that Disney is massively revamping Star Tours in two parks, building the Art of Animation resort hotel, expanding in China, re-staging much-loved attractions like Captain EO and carrying out a huge, expensive update to Fantasyland in the WDW Magic Kingdom. With wobbly visitor numbers due to the global financial problems, Disney’s already committed huge amounts of money to park updates, so it’s hardly surprising that they’re committing another chunk to tempting more people through the doors as well as keeping the existing fans happy.

I think it really is exciting to think of your picture being projected against Cinderella Castle. I’ve written before about my first Disney trip, complete with charmingly gormless photo, and ¬†you can guarantee that child would have wet herself with delight if it had happened. I would be ridiculously excited now that I have better bladder control. But what’s even more exciting is the thought of, as a dedicated fan, having those memories recognised and having them appear in Disney’s marketing. Because it’s basically taking what we’re already doing with our blogs, forums, tweets, videos etc and applying a megaphone to it. We’re already telling the world how much we love Disney, and now Disney’s realised that helping us do it makes us feel special and potentially benefits them massively (and let’s not forget, Disney making more money means those precious park expansions can continue to happen).

I understand that the annual passholders who go several times a year every year want to see something new, but when that gormless four-year-old was watching a parade in the Magic Kingdom less than 30 years ago there were just two parks there, and one (the then EPCOT Centre) was only two years old. Now, in Florida alone, there are four main parks, two water parks, swathes of shopping areas, new dedicated resorts for Disney Vacation Club members… you name it. Disneylands Anaheim and Paris have expanded massively and there are cruise liners galore.

Disney’s social media team, in particular the Disney Moms Panel (and just to be clear, you don’t have to be a parent, or even female, to apply) has an enormous job to do; it takes some time for me to go through all the messages to Dogs Trust every day and that’s 100,000 people on a Facebook page and under 15,000 on Twitter – huge, important numbers to us, but nothing like what Disney is dealing with. For us it’s absolutely essential that we reply to everyone we can and make sure they get the answers they’re looking for, because these are the people that make our work possible and they deserve the best we can be. Yet because of the scale involved it can be a disappointing experience messaging Disney in the social space unless you’re talking directly to someone like Thomas Smith or Laura Spencer, who are both excellent. Disney’s found another way to interact and reward instead; it’s less conversational – it sort of turns broadcasting on its head by broadcasting back the message to those who produce it – but no less powerful. They’ve taken the most simple route by addressing the fan’s strength in creating material and the organisation’s strength in broadcasting it.

And simplicity in social media – as in every other arena – is so often the best way. I truly look forward to seeing what happens next.

Disney is the model non-profits can learn from

Guru nominations aside, I make no secret of the fact that I think much of social media marketing resolves down to good old fashioned common sense plus good communication skills. Writing online is different to writing for print, but both are forms of storytelling. If you’re creative, polite and honest with a decent grasp of spelling and grammar, you’ll probably find the seeds of a good blogger inside yourself.

Of course, that’s breaking it down to its most simplistic form, but I do think that’s a useful thing to do. This is because when you look at the bare bones of how and what you’re communicating, you find inspiration and ideas come from rather unexpected sources.

I’m a huge Disney fan. Massive. Lifelong. Since my first visit as a four-year-old to my last visit as a twenty-four-year old. I’m going again in a month’s time, to spend two blissful weeks in the vicinity of what is undoubtedly one of the Happiest Places on Earth. But until recently I hadn’t joined up my love of the Mouse with what I do on a day-to-day business. After all, I work for a charity, not a commercial organisation. Sure, charities can (and should) learn from businesses, but what we do online is quite different, right?

In the case of Disney – wrong.

The main difference between the average charity and the average business is one of product. We’re selling the gift of a better existence to a person or animal, and in a way that is our online advantage, because it naturally lends itself to storytelling. Updates about dogs needing homes, Sponsor Dog information, guest blogs from dog owners, animal-related news… for us there’s a veritable fount of stories to be delivered and many ways to deliver them. We blog, Tweet and find a winning combination of inspiration, storytellers and audience online. Many companies would salivate over that kind of access to close interaction; we delight in the ability to be able to talk and – more crucially – listen to our supporters.

We’re not selling a product; we’re describing an ideal, and inviting people to become part of making it a reality, thanking them as we go.

But Disney has lots of products, right? It even has a paid for social media product. So what on Earth does it have in common with a charity that can help non-profits learn the rules of the game?

Stories.

Disney, unusually among commercial conglomerates, sells an experience as much as it sells actual products. It sells being part of the Disney dream. It has an army of dedicated advocates and fans, who take their evangelical love of the company and instill it in their children. It absolutely revels in stories from visitors – the Disney Moms Panel is sheer genius – and gives a platform to everyone it can to talk, talk, talk, interrupting as little as possible.

Human nature has not changed thanks to the Internet. People still, at heart, just want a voice. Charities have the privileged chance to give it to them, and they might not have Disney’s budget but they can share its passion. I will be watching carefully, and taking notes.