When I first saw Dan Blank's post, "I Have Seen the Future, and It's Fluffy", in my RSS in-box I almost skipped right past it. I'm glad I didn't. In it, he describes the community experience kids enjoy when they play with Webkinz.
My favorite part of Dan's post is where he says:
How much more profitable is a customer who doesn't simply purchase a product - but one who logs onto a brand’s website everyday to interact with that product, and build relationships with other customers? Is the plush animal simply a gimmick to build an online community?
That model is something that would not only benefit any content publisher, but most companies in general. When was the last time you bought something and then went online to enjoy the community platform that product offers? Think about the sites and online services you tend to use the most. Google comes to mind. Have you bought anything from them? I haven't.
How about a model that's closer to the publishing world?: Amazon. I buy stuff there and I post reviews there, but that's still nowhere near the type of community interaction you'd find on Webkinz. It makes me wonder why Amazon doesn't do more on this front; why not offer a platform for local (and not-so-local) bookclub discussions, for example? They could easily tie in a commerce component: "Free hosting for your neighborhood bookclub on Amazon, plus, get an additional xx% off orders for more than xx copies of each club book."
Regardless of whether Amazon ever tries something like that, Webkinz is an interesting study on how the benefits of online communities are being enjoyed at a very young age; as this customer base ages, it will no doubt raise the bar even further for community expectations.