It was the UK’s biggest social world in the second half of 2012 and has 20 million registered users, with 30,000 joining every day. Bin Weevils has become an online phenomenon and is doing similar business at retail with toys, books, cards, bedding and magazines.
MCV spoke to new CEO Rod Henwood about how a microsite for a short animated series grew into a something now standing toe-to-toe with Moshi Monsters.
How does Bin Weevils today differ from when it started?
It began as a series of animated cartoons and as a mini website. Nickelodeon commissioned the animated series in 2004 and carried the website as a microsite on Nick.co.uk. The series worked reasonably well but the website just took off. Soon, traffic for the Bin Weevils section of the Nickelodeon website was larger than the rest of the Nickelodeon site put together.
That led the creators to consider commercialising it and turn it into the entity it is today. In 2010, we launched the current business model, which involved a mix of subscription and advertising. Since that period, turnover has grown six-fold. The two million unique users per month from a UK base makes it the UK’s leading social world for kids.
How successful has the subscription service been?
The launch of subscriptions turned this into a profitable business and its been profitable since the beginning of 2011. The more free users there are, the more popular the brand is and the more likely it is that our consumer product lines will sell. But at the same time, our subscribers who get value by getting exclusive areas and certain privileges, they are a valuable source of revenue as well. The two really reinforce each other and represent an attractive combination.
The success of Moshi is great for everybody because it helps enlarge the category we sit in and grow the market. We're respectful and positively admiring of them.
- Rod Henwood
Does the boxed games market feature in your future plans?
At one level, as a social world, we are an online games provider. The oil of the business is having an online game, which is constantly refreshed. As far as the wider games market with consoles and so on, there’s obviously potential. We’re well aware of what Moshi has done and the value of that market, so we’re quite open to it. But our roots are really online and in future, on tablet.
Do you see Moshi as your main competitor?
In the UK, there are three of us vying for the top position amongst users: Club Penguin, Moshi Monsters and ourselves. In the second half of last year, we were number one.
What Moshi has done tremendously well is to develop their licensing and merchandising activities and their international market development. While they grew up in the UK, they are in multiple territories internationally. We feel their success is great for everybody because it helps enlarge the category that we sit in and grow the market. It’s a good example as to how to develop profitably. We’re respectful and positively admiring of them.
At the same time, there are differences in what we do. We plough our own furrow. You can’t look over your shoulder when you’re running a business like this; you have to work on your own content ideas. As an example, we are the only site that carries video-on-demand programming.
But when two out of the top three social worlds in the UK originated here, Moshi and ourselves, that’s a positive thing for the market as a whole. It’s a good testament to the UK in terms of creativity and entrepreneurship.
Why has the UK responded so well to Bin Weevils?
The founders came from a kid’s entertainment background. Their roots were originally in television so a huge amount of time was spent nurturing the narrative and the character definition of the world. And there is quite an entrepreneurial spirit in the UK now. One of the enduring benefits of the dot com boom was that it turned a lot more people into entrepreneurs in the UK. It spawned a generation of people who were prepared to take creative and business risks in a way that preceding generations had less of. Then success begets success. The moment you’ve got more than one example in the market doing good stuff then other people see how it can be done.
Are there plans to expand Bin Weevils globally?
The positive thing about online social worlds is that launching into other territories is relatively straightforward. If you live in the US or India or Australia, you can participate in Bin Weevils. We have a small number of users who come from non-UK territories even though we’ve never really marketed in earnest to them at all. We concentrate our marketing in the UK and that remains our primary focus at the moment because there is plenty of growth to come from that market still. But we see the step into other territories, particularly English- speaking countries, as a relatively easy and natural one to follow.
To date, the most successful social worlds have been created anew rather than from an existing brand. That probably says there is an advantage in being able to come without the baggage of people's expectations of what a social world should be.
- Rod Henwood
You were previously Pottermore CEO. What brings more challenges: handling a newly created world like Bin Weevils or dealing with the expectations for Harry Potter fans?
It’s very interesting that to date, the most successful social worlds have been created anew rather than from an existing brand. That probably says there is a certain advantage in being able to come without the baggage of people’s expectations of what a social world should be. If it came from a pre- existing character with a narrative story, there is the danger that consumers don’t think of it as a social world and therefore will have some resistance or expectations that can’t be fulfilled.
That said, Pottermore has also been very successful in its own right, less as a game or a social world and more as a companion to the storyline and the reading experience. It helps if you don’t have to build a brand from the start. On the other hand, it also helps if you don’t come with any baggage.