April 6, 2016
A new app-based social network from LEGO appears to be doing the extraordinary: providing a safe space for children online while winning plaudits from parents
Children under 13 have long been personae non grata on social networks. They’re prohibited from joining the likes of Facebook, Instagram and Snapchat by terms of service. Sure, some youths can easily lie about their ages, but what they see on those platforms isn’t intended for them.
Enter LEGO. The Danish toy and entertainment behemoth spent two years developing a social app that would appeal directly to pre-teens while passing muster with concerned parents and international regulators. The final result was LEGO Life, a social network open to everyone but designed primarily as a space for users under 13 to share their LEGO creations. No audio, full video (the site allows stop-motion), text-based communication or identifying usernames or images are allowed, and parents must consent early and often to whatever their child sees and does.
For its efforts, LEGO has won approval from parents and consumer groups since going live on January 31. But to better understand how the site operates, Marketing News spoke directly to James Lema, LEGO Life’s creative director.
Q: For close to two decades now, LEGO has been much more than a toy. What steps did the company take to become the omni-channel media company it is today? Why go in that direction?
A: Like every successful brand, we recognize the world is changing around us and understand how to adapt while keeping true to our core principles. We have always had fun and construction at the core of our play experiences. Whether it’s playing with physical bricks, video games, apps, watching movies and videos or reading magazines, we have evolved to be where the kids are. As time, media and technology change, we have found ways to successfully deliver on our play promise of creating fun, playful experiences that inject humor into the narrative.
Q: How about setting up the social network, LEGO Life? What were the goals of the app from a marketing perspective, especially when you already have games and content on Lego.com?
A: We know that children have long reveled in the pride of sharing their LEGO creations with their peers and family. Until now, the primary means kids had for sharing were either in-person with friends and family or through the LEGO Club Magazine. The centerfold of our Club Magazine was the main spot for group sharing of kids’ creations and these community pages were the highest-rated pages for 10 years.
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By introducing a digital platform to facilitate and further this tradition, we can exponentially increase the amount of kids who can share their creations and the amount of times each child can share. Also, kids can give and get feedback and inspire each other to keep building.
Our biggest challenge before we launched was whether or not kids would contribute to the platform. We wanted to make sure the content was LEGO-focused and knew there could be challenges around what kids might share. To our delight, kids have been contributing thousands of inspirational builds and content to our platform at an extreme rate. We’re happy the experience has been received so well.
Q: You already have a magazine called LEGO Life, which is aimed at children aged 5 to 9. You recommend older children download the LEGO Life app. Why the differentiation?
A: The LEGO Club magazine goes out to all 6 million members of LEGO Club across 18 markets worldwide—all of whom are enthusiastic LEGO builders and many of whom submit photos of their creations hoping to be chosen for one of a limited number of spots in the magazine dedicated to showcasing their LEGO creations. This same audience can now join LEGO Life which will allow all club members the opportunity to share as many of their builds as they like as often as they like.
Q: You have an entire section on Lego.com devoted to digital safety. How can parents teach young children about potential dangers in the fun LEGO Life online space?
A: The LEGO safety pledge adheres to UNICEF standards and is a method for parents to talk to their kids about digital safety while establishing a shared commitment to ground rules for online social behavior. In addition to the safeguards around sharing personal information and content moderation, we added a specific digital safety section for parents that conveys our approach to digital safety and illustrates the ways in which LEGO Life focuses on the safety of their children.
Q: What do parents need to be assured of before giving their children permission to use the app, and how did you alleviate those concerns?
A: We understand that the No. 1 concern among parents when it comes to social networks and other digital environments is safety, so naturally we kept this at the heart of the development of LEGO Life. We implemented as many safeguards as possible to prevent children from sharing personal information, images of themselves and anything that could allow other users to identify and locate one another. For example, the LEGO Life name generator uses a random three-word mix to create a display name so children can choose from silly names like DukeCharmingShrimp or CaptainNoisyBadger. Additionally, the LEGO Emoji Keyboard was created to keep communication simple, universal, safe and fun. Children can only comment on each other’s posts through a keyboard of recognizable LEGO emojis and elements, minifigure faces and stickers. You can express a world of opinions with a simple smile or heart.
Q: What kind of feedback have you been getting from parents since LEGO Life launched?
A: Recently at the LEGO World event in Copenhagen, we asked parents and kids what their opinions were of the app. Parents approve of the app because they know and trust the LEGO commitment to safety and fun. Kids told us the app inspires them to build. This is exactly what we were hoping for.
Q: How does the “visualized hashtag system” work in the app?
A: The LEGO groups are the LEGO Life version of hashtags. Groups are arranged around areas of interest (animals, vehicles, heroes, etc.), LEGO themes (NINJAGO, Star Wars, etc.) and seasonal/regional topics (New Year, Valentine’s, etc ). Once kids follow a group, they will see updates from their favorite characters and themes within their LEGO Life feed, including interesting builds, images and challenges. Groups will expand as LEGO Life membership grows and trends and interests take shape.
Q: Can you link to anything outside of the network from within the app?
A: The only items we currently link to outside of the app are other LEGO apps. Before a user can visit these apps, we put a parental pop-up/check to ensure that users know they are about to leave the app.
Q: Aside from creating a safe digital space, what notes did the app have to hit to remain consistent with the LEGO brand?
A: The main goal in developing LEGO Life was to give kids a safe space where they could inspire and get inspired to build more with LEGO bricks. Every aspect of LEGO Life embodies the sense of play, creativity, and humor inherent in the LEGO brand.
Q: Can you say how many users are active on LEGO Life, and what percentage are 13 or under? Is membership meeting or exceeding company estimates?
A: We’ve had an overwhelmingly positive response so far and just crossed the threshold of 1 million downloads by our fans. In our first week, we became the No. 1 children’s app in each launch market, and we have been very pleased with the enthusiastic response we are receiving from parents and kids alike—both in the comments they are sharing and in the volume of LEGO creations they are uploading to LEGO Life.
Q: A lot of the social content on LEGO Life is created directly by LEGO. What does your content team look like and what are its goals? Are they a bunch of social media and design experts playing with LEGOs all day?
A: LEGO Life is a healthy mix of user-generated content and content created by our editorial teams. These editors are highly dedicated to their craft. They spend each day reviewing activity within the app and adjust their editorial strategies to maximize user engagement. They coordinate campaigns across all our product groups and themes and suggest the best ways to reach our audience from a mix of challenges, articles and videos. They also build and play with a lot of LEGO bricks! Ultimately, the goal is to strike the right balance in engagement and inspiration to ensure a steady stream of user-generated content and community.
Q: What about the content monitoring team? How big is it, and what is it looking for?
A: Every post to LEGO Life is monitored and viewed by a human. We use image detection software for an initial review and then, based on the content, it will receive varying levels of review from our team. The main requirement for posting is that the content must somehow be LEGO-relevant—and brand-appropriate, of course.
Q: Why put this all in an app and not make it a separate website accessible from a browser?
A: The goal is to provide an experience that kids can enjoy wherever they are. We know that more kids today have their own tablets or mobile phones and they expect to have this kind of experience available to them. They also are much more app-centric and less motivated by branded websites.
Screen shots from the LEGO Life interface.
Q: Have you thought about incorporating advertising or sponsored content at all?
A: LEGO Life does not have any third-party advertisement, nor are there plans to include any.
Q: What about co-branding? LEGO Life includes Batman, Star Wars and Minecraft Lego sets. I think I saw the legal portion of the app mentioning Angry Birds characters. How do you determine what other brands can enter the app space? Are there any limitations on who can enter the space and what they can look like?
A: The LEGO Batman, LEGO Star Wars and LEGO Minecraft content we produce within the app is based on licensed themes that are part of the LEGO universe. If we currently produce a LEGO set for a certain license, there is a good chance at some point you’ll see a group or content based on that theme within LEGO Life.
Q: It’s been reported that you’re looking into the possibility of adding in-app chat functions as well as allowing users to upload narrated video. Do you have any updates on if and when those features might be added? How about any other features not currently part of the LEGO Life experience?
A: In terms of in-app chat and user video, those are ambitions we have for the future, but we need to make sure we take the appropriate time to develop them in a safe, responsible and fun way. LEGO Life is an agile project in every sense. Our development roadmap can change based on the way our users are engaging in the app. We may have plans to bring in a new feature, but if we see kids are using the app in surprising ways, we will prioritize development of features that benefit our users’ habits. Every day, we see new ways kids are using the app, and it’s been a pleasure to see the builders of tomorrow inspiring each other.
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