Michael Bellavia is an Emmy Award winning executive producer and digital content strategist. Since 2001, Michael has been the CEO of Animax, a digital production company based in Los Angeles that develops, produces and markets creative content. Animax has worked with agencies and clients to design and engineer mobile apps, games, animation, social media, television, webseries and other interactive products and experiences. Michael is also the Chair of the New Media Council of the Producers Guild of America which represents professionals involved in digital storytelling across media as diverse as online, mobile, tablets and transmedia.
I spoke at the Toy Industry Association’s PlayCon alongside execs from Activision, Google/YouTube and Funrise Toys about the factors reshaping the industry. The conference is an opportunity for execs from leading toy manufacturers, brick and mortar stores and online toy retailers, to gather and hear insights from within and outside the industry about the shifting dynamics.
The key takeaways from the panel and the event:
1. Flat to declining sales. In the US a variety of factors from the economy to declining birthrates to the rise of digital and interactive gaming are resulting in an across the board decline in sales. It could be argued that these digital related categories should be included in what is considered the toy industry but that may be a means of masking the fundamental shift in the health of the industry. It just means you need to get creative and make some changes now before you get left behind.
2. Do you make toys or magic? Declining sales calls for a reassessment of how toy companies view themselves. Do you see yourselves as being in the play industry, or the physical object manufacturing business? Do you make stuff, and focus on making a better toy product or do you focus on creating magic for your customers? Saatchi & Saatchi says to focus on innovation over new. Activision doesn’t refer to Skylanders internally as a toy or a video game or a digital toy – they refer to what they’re creating as magic. Even if you’re making analog toys, focus on how your teddy bear is creating magic for your customers and help them make more of that. And take a look at the way you measure success — is it just sales or is it time spent with your toys and how you’d actually measure that.
3. Platform toys are doing well. Whether its physical LEGO pieces are largely interchangeable, Rainbow Loom and its bands, Skylanders and their figurines, Sphero and the ability for kids to code new moves, or the iPad and the treasure trove of apps there is an increasing importance to create a platform approach to product development.
4. Align your culture with your customers. Let’s face it, there are some industries that have the cool factor and become more attractive to millennial job seekers than the toy biz. Take a hard look at who you are, how you define yourself and how you inspire and cultivate your team. Sorry – some frank talk: the attendees at the conference were generally older, caucasian men. Look for ways to add diversity to your team and it will likely inspire innovation in your product mix. You can change your DNA to align with what today’s workforce is rewarded by – include social good opportunities for your staff, crowdsource ideas from your staff and your employees, encourage user generated content to be created and maybe even look at crowdfunding opportunities as a means to build marketing support for a totally new product line. Think different.
5. Get mobile. It was said multiple times during PlayCon – if your site isn’t mobile friendly and if you don’t have hooks into mobile you’re already a few years behind. Catch up!
6. Content marketing matters. YouTube is the second largest search engine behind Google. Amazon highlights product videos and reviews. Social media channels connect you directly to your customer base. But all these opportunities mean that you aren’t just a manufacturer anymore – you are basically an entertainment studio that makes toys too. Make videos – unboxing videos, product reviews, shorts, etc. Inspire your fans to create them for you. Reach out to YouTube stars and emerging stars and give them product to feature in their videos. Become part of the conversation and give others, especially your key influencers, the opportunity to generate content for you. Even if you make analog products, you can find ways to “digify” yourself and create that magic. Rainbow Loom is a sign of the rise of the maker movement but that analog toy is accompanied by a ton of instructional YouTube videos and other digital content that create a digital and social platform beyond the plastic and bands. Kids don’t look at it in silos of play – digital play vs. playing with physical toys – all of it is playtime that can happen concurrent or time-shifted.
7. Partner, partner, partner. It’s nearly impossible to do it all on your own and in some cases it’s not to your benefit. Amazon, YouTube, Google, Tongal – these platforms want to help collaborate with you. Collaboration brings more parties to the mix who can provide you a network effect to your product development and marketing efforts and ultimately grow your sales in ways you couldn’t on your own. If you’re looking for a partner to help you with your digital content production and marketing efforts, Animax is ready to play.