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Disney.com's Surf Swell Island Launch

Paul Holmes 07 Jul 2001

 

While Disney Online (DOL), and its Web site Disney.com, had historically received extensive media coverage since its 1995 launch, the recent proliferation of Web sites and competition for media attention has proven that today an established brand name does not necessarily equate to widespread media coverage.  As a long-standing client of Manning Selvage & Lee/Los Angeles, DOL needed a platform to catapult them to the next level of media recognition.  MS&L recommended capitalizing on DOL’s historical leadership in the area of Internet safety and initiate a campaign that would bring Disney.com to the forefront of Internet safety awareness and education.  As a result, MS&L designed and implemented a five-month public relations campaign that utilized a “media pulse” strategy to build interest in DOL’s Internet safety initiatives, and to generate excitement about its brand-new Internet safety Web site.  Through a gradual and extensive series of PR tactics, MS&L secured prominent media coverage of the Web site and DOL’s Internet safety leadership.  In addition, visitor traffic to the Disney.com Web site spiked considerably during the weeks prior to and immediately following the Internet safety Web site launch – traffic that is directly attributable to PR since the Web site was not supported by any advertising or marketing.  

CHALLENGE/OPPORTUNITY

Disney was one of the first entertainment companies to have an online presence with the launch of its Disney Online division and the Disney.com Web site (U.S.) in 1995.  At that time, the Internet was still considered the “medium du jour” and the extension of the Disney brand on the Web was met with vast enthusiasm from industry insiders and media.  

Since its inception, Disney Online (DOL) has also been on the forefront of educating kids and families about Internet safety and privacy.  The company’s various online safety initiatives, including National Smart Surfing Week, Doug’s Internet Safety Page and government’s GetNetWise coalition were well received by the media and became part of DOL’s strong track record on Internet safety.  DOL’s Internet safety initiatives broadened in 1999 with the launch of “smart surfing” initiatives in Europe.  DOL was truly becoming the global leader in Internet safety education with local programs being executed against its worldwide initiative in France, the United Kingdom and Germany.

However, by late 1999 the newness of the Internet was beginning to wane among U.S. media, and Disney.com, as an established, “mainstream” Web property, was no longer a media darling.  It was becoming increasingly challenging to sustain media’s interest, especially since competitor Web sites, viewed as more hip, cool and in touch with modern-day kids, were often overshadowing Disney.com in the eyes of journalists.

The challenge then appeared: how do we capitalize on Disney’s name, credibility and trust of consumers, and leverage that reputation to differentiate Disney.com from the sea of “alternative” Web sites?  

RESEARCH/PLANNING

In January 2000, MS&L and Disney Online conducted multiple brainstorms to identify a high profile public relations program that would catapult DOL to the forefront of Internet-related media coverage.  Disney’s unwavering commitment to Internet safety clearly became the platform of choice.  MS&L identified Internet safety or “smart surfing” as the issue that could truly differentiate Disney.com from the competition, further establishing the company as online leader, innovator and a premier online destination for Internet safety education.  

To validate this platform, MS&L conducted media soft soundings in early February 2000 to determine media’s interest in Internet safety and their perceptions of Disney’s proactive commitment to smart surfing.  The media consensus was that while Internet safety is an important initiative and still a relevant industry topic, Disney must establish a clear leadership position by developing an ongoing program with a different approach/positioning that sets it apart from the crowd.  

From these insights, the MS&L team concluded that the proposed smart surfing initiative must be of breakthrough caliber – establishing a benchmark of distinction for Disney’s ongoing global Internet safety initiative.  By clearly leveraging its brand recognition, established consumer appeal and stable of world-renown characters, Disney could make its latest Internet safety initiative accessible, fun and interactive, while still delivering a powerful message to kids and parents. 

With this vision in mind, MS&L and DOL cemented three overall program objectives: 

  • Establish the leadership position in the smart surfing arena: GO.com (“umbrella” of Disney’s online properties) as the leading force in influencing policies on Internet safety and education; DOL bringing the initiative to consumers through its Web site and smart surfing content
  • Use smart surfing Web site content to educate existing Disney.com community and new guests about smart surfing initiative
  • Create platform to build immediate and long-term media attention and recognition of DOL’s smart surfing leadership position

DOL recognized an extraordinary opportunity to shine by “owning” the issue of Internet safety.  Accordingly, DOL put the resources, both money and manpower, behind creating an innovative, completely new Internet safety Web site – solely created to promote media attention and consumer visibility.  DOL blended existing Internet safety content and world-famous characters with original interactive games and activities found at a new Internet safety destination – Disney.com’s Surf Swell Island.

STRATEGIC APPROACH

To meet the set program objectives and capitalize on the launch of Surf Swell Island, MS&L devised a stepped, integrated smart surfing PR program in order to maximize and sustain media coverage.  The PR strategy was to implement multiple “media pulses” from April 2000 through the site’s launch in August 2000, designed to capture the media’s attention early and build anticipation.  

To further enhance the program’s impact, credibility and relevance, MS&L recommended integrating third-party expertise and insight.  MS&L researched existing Internet safety research studies and results, as well as identified vocal and well-established proponents of Internet safety to further flex the program’s media muscle.  MS&L’s strategic counsel was to blend the power of the Disney franchise with original Internet safety research and expert input to generate sustained media attention and coverage.

CAMPAIGN EXECUTION

Over the course of the five-month program, the DOL and MS&L teams worked together to execute the most successful program in our client’s history.  Dodging numerous challenges, both teams worked collaboratively to execute a comprehensive public relations program that culminated with the Surf Swell Island Web site launch and kick-off event on Wednesday, August 9.  

MS&L implemented a spectrum of program tactics to build media momentum leading up to the launch of Surf Swell Island, including a total of six “media pulses:”

First media teaser campaign, including a veiled e-mail pitch and “wish you were here” postcard mailing to build media anticipation and excitement.

Creation and execution of a Surf Swell Island Internet Safety Survey, sponsored by Disney Online and conducted by a third party research company.  The survey results were announced via press release, and used as a precursor to the Surf Swell Island site launch to “set the stage” for the importance of Internet safety education and DOL’s leadership tied to this issue.

Second media teaser campaign, including Surf Swell Island “mini-movie” trailer and Surf Swell Island vacation poster

Creation and distribution of Surf Swell Island press kits, featuring a historical backgrounder, Internet safety “lessons learned,” site fact sheet, Internet safety “tip sheet” and executive bios.  Kits were distributed to long- and short-lead media with tailored pitch letters.

Announcement of the Surf Swell Island Web site, including a site introduction press release.

Launch of the Surf Swell Island Web site– the Surf Swell Island Beach Bash

Third-party spokesperson research and coordination (secured Parry Aftab, Executive Director of CyberAngels.org and leading Internet safety advocate)

Production and distribution of a radio news release (tied to the site launch) and a B-roll package (available in advance of the site launch, and again with footage from the Surf Swell Island launch beach bash).

A series of five media advisories (event announcement, weatherman/traffic reporter alert, “sneak preview” alert, day-before and day-of event alerts).

Creation and distribution of the site launch press release to media nationwide, plus a post-event press release touting the response

Hosting the Surf Swell Island Beach Bash, inviting more than 125 children from local camps and youth groups to attend and interact with media.

Throughout the program, MS&L engaged in aggressive, proactive media outreach, contacting more than 500 print and broadcast media nationwide to secure interest and coverage of Disney.com’s Surf Swell Island and DOL’s overall Internet safety initiative.

RESULTS SUMMARY/EVALUATION

Disney Online’s 2000 “smart surfing” PR initiative, tied closely to the launch of the Surf Swell Island Web site, was effective in furthering the program’s core objective: establish the leadership position in the Internet safety and education arena.  This success is even more impressive considering the numerous challenges faced during the program’s five-month run, including a 1½ month site launch delay due to site name trademark issues and site development problems, virus scares and competing with other major Disney-related news on the day of launch.

However, the resulting media coverage clearly ascended above these challenges.  As a result of solid advance planning and aggressive media outreach efforts, Disney.com’s Surf Swell Island enjoyed considerable attention from print and broadcast media nationwide.  MS&L secured a total of nearly 23 million consumer impressions, including more than 33 print articles (seven syndicated) including United Press International, Orlando Sentinel, Seattle Post Intelligencer and America West magazine, 71 television segments (many of them syndicated) including CNN’s “Showbiz Today” and “Digital Jam,” ZDTV, and 640 radio broadcasts.  Our program messages shined through each media placement – DOL was clearly positioned as the online leader in providing kids and families with engaging, interactive activities and information directly supporting the critical issue of Internet safety.
Overall, the Surf Swell Island Web site was also a milestone because, for the first time in Disney Online’s history, a Web site was solely created to support a communications initiative and not the other way around.  Surf Swell Island featured no advertisements or e-commerce opportunities – strictly a Web site designed to demonstrate Disney Online’s commitment to Internet safety education.  From the client’s perspective, Surf Swell Island is now heralded as the benchmark of success for future PR programs.  The traffic to the Surf Swell Island site caused an unprecedented increase in visits to the Fun for Families Channel on Disney.com.  Since the Web site was created solely as part of a PR initiative, with no advertising or marketing support, this traffic spike was directly attributable to the buzz generated through the high profile media coverage secured.  As a result, the company plans to build upon the foundation established by this initiative and in the future conduct at least one major Internet safety event/program every year.  

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