Tear Down These Disney Walls

To Fully Realize Web 2.0, Mouse House Must Think Beyond Its Online Theme Park

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Sometime in the next few days, perhaps by the time you read this, Walt Disney Co. will unveil the next iteration of its flagship website. CEO Bob Iger touted the relaunch last month during his keynote at the Consumer Electronics Show. The centerpiece of the new Disney.com will be something called Disney Xtreme Digital, which will enable greater personalization and community within the site.
Steve Rubel
Steve Rubel Credit: JC Bourcart

Disney has had digital fits and starts for more than 10 years. Recent successes, such as the popular ESPN 360 broadband-video platform, might finally erode memories of the company's big failures, such as the ill-fated Go Network. However, Disney's corporate culture may prevent it from fully embracing a Web 2.0 world where consumers are in control.

In this new era, Disney's greatest opportunities online lie not in creating bigger walled gardens but in spreading its content far and wide. This means giving rabid fans the content they want where they want it. Yes, Disney needs to get comfortable seeing Mickey and crew on blogs and YouTube. It also means that Disney will need to allow people to adapt its work so they can express their own creativity.

The conundrums
This presents a conundrum on several levels. For starters, many of the more popular social-networking and publishing properties are owned by Disney competitors. Second, the company at times has had a difficult relationship with its most effusive fans: It has a reputation for vigorously enforcing its trademarks on the web. Iger's challenge is to get Disney to loosen up, let go and think beyond its online theme park. The good news is there's a model right under the company's nose.

Disney's huge licensing division earns billions by allowing people to express themselves through the purchase of character merchandise such as clothing. It needs to take this same approach online. For example, Disney should take all of its characters and create MySpace themes. Or take some of its music and video libraries and make them freely available online so people can integrate them into their own creations. Otherwise consumers will do it anyway and in ways Disney might not approve.

This is perhaps the company's biggest opportunity online. Will Disney grab it? One hopes. In the meantime, just as with the theme parks, we need to visit Disney.com to enjoy all the company has to offer.

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Steve Rubel is a marketing strategist and blogger. he is senior VP in Edelman's Me2Revolution practice.
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