Another year, another holiday season in which frantic parents are eager to find out what the most popular toys are going to be, so they can get a jump on the competition.
Toys R Us, the largest toy retailer in the world, wants to assure parents through Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube videos that they can count on it.
Last month, the company launched a series of ads and online videos in which kids serve as "anchors" of a toy-centric news network aimed at cluing parents in to the big kid trends.
"This is really a way for us to communicate our unique strength as a toy authority," says Adrienne O'Hara, the retailer's public relations manager.
Along with a huge Facebook push for its Toys for Tots campaign and a sweepstakes that will bring one lucky Black Friday shopper to Toys R Us one hour early, the brand is establishing a prominent online presence as the holidays approach.
The Toys R Us PR team worked with advertising agency Escape Pod to develop the TV ads and videos that they call the TRU News Network, which feature two child "anchors" discussing the big kid news of the holiday season. Escape Pod pitched the idea to Toys R Us and the company agreed, because "it really speaks to a lot of our key strengths as a company," O'Hara says.
It's a pretty big departure from the brand's previous holiday campaigns, she says. In previous years, they were about deals and promotions. This time, Toys R Us wanted to articulate the idea that "we have the broadest assortment of toys of any retailer," O'Hara says.
Many of the videos are being used as TV ads, but some are social-media-exclusive, she says. For instance, one announcing the top entries on this year's "hot toys" list is only on Facebook and at ToysRUs.com. The Facebook post with the video of the hot toys list is nearing 250 "likes."
"We do work hard throughout the year to identify what the hot toys are going to be," O'Hara says. "We shop the world and look at all the new toy introductions for the year to determine what toys are going to pique kids' interest."
That process includes testing products in Toys R Us stores each spring and summer, as well as interviewing kids about the toys that are most exciting to them. Having the message come from kid news anchors makes it a lot more fun, O'Hara says, and it may have a greater pull for kids. But parents want to get their info from the brand itself.
"Parents do rely on Toys R Us as a company to have those key insights about what kids will be interested in, even before they might hear it from a child," she says.
To keep the discussion about the year's hot toys going, Toys R Us started the #HotToys hashtag on Twitter, which O'Hara says has become a way for parents to talk amongst themselves, as well as with brand representatives.
"When we were discussing what hashtag we wanted to use, one of the things we were looking at was, what's part of normal conversation when people are talking about the holiday season?" she says. "It seemed like a pretty organic hashtag for us to be using."
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Toys for Tots
Facebook is playing a big role in the retailer's Toys for Tots campaign this year, O'Hara says. This is the fourth year Toys R Us has worked with retired NBA star Shaquille O'Neal, a.k.a. Shaq-a Claus, to promote the charitable campaign. The company's Facebook page is loaded with videos of O'Neal and kids doing a fun take on "The 12 Days of Christmas."
"Through these videos we're able to communicate to customers, here are some of the toys you might want to donate to kids in need through the Toys for Tots program at Toys R Us," O'Hara says.
Each post with one of those videos links to a page where folks can buy toys online to donate to the program. This year, "Shaq's Santa Sack" is focusing on victims of Hurricane Sandy. So far, that effort has raised more than $1 million worth of toys.
Also on Facebook, Toys R Us has been posting images of what it calls the "Give Back Tracker." Any time someone steps up and pays off the layaway balance of a family in need, Toys R Us donates $200 to Toys for Tots. The latest Give Back Tracker post has racked up nearly 6,000 "likes."
For the second year in a row, Toys R Us is running a Facebook sweepstakes offering customers a chance to do their Black Friday shopping an hour earlier than everyone else in a $1,000 shopping spree. The company is also offering daily prizes of $100 gift cards.
The sweepstakes is a way to raise the brand's "like" count-entrants have to "like" the page to enter-but it also serves as a way to inform.
"It was another way for us to communicate with our fans on Facebook about our [Black Friday] plans," O'Hara says.
She didn't share any participation numbers, but in just a few short hours the Facebook post announcing the sweepstakes gained 1,600 "likes" and nearly 100 comments, many of which announced that they hadn't just entered the contest but had shared it, too.
Matt Wilson is a staff writer for Ragan.com.