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How This Company Is Building the Future of Children’s Books

Wonderbly is pioneering the personalization of children’s books with products that are customized for each unique reader, appealing to young consumers’ (and their parents’) love of customization…

Young consumers have already proven that their taste for unique, individualized experiences and products can shift industries, and the children’s book world is no exception. According to Ypulse’s Customization Nation trend research, 64% of Millennial parents are interested in buying products that are customized to their tastes or made specifically for them, and over half are interested in buying personalized books—like the ones that Wonderbly is pioneering the creation of.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingThe digital publishing company’s first title, The Little Boy or Girl Who Lost Their Name, was a side project by four friends that blew up into an international publishing success story. The innovative customized book weaves a story from each child’s name, personalizing the tale based on user-inputted information about each individual reader. Customers are given a choice of characters to represent each letter, so the “story will be as unique as their name.” The popular Google-backed books became a hit, delivering titles to more than 2.6 million as of early 2017. The book’s success—due to the unique personalization of the story—inspired the group of friends to start their own publishing company and expand their library of personalized stories. Wonderbly will offer eight titles by the end of the year, all with customized narratives based on user-inputted information, and the data collected from the creation of each book informs the strategy for future products.

Wonderbly is appealing to nostalgia and the return to analog products (like board games and books), but especially to young people’s love of personalization. We spoke with Wonderbly’s CEO, Asi Sharabi, to find out more about how they customize books, the important role that data plays in their success, and how they appeal to tech-savvy kids (and their parents) with a decidedly analog offering. Here’s what other brands can learn from the company building the future of customized kid’s products, one story at a time:

Ypulse: Wonderbly is all about personalization—why do you as a brand feel it is important to personalize/customize products for the next generation of readers?

AS: We believe using personalization within stories creates greater emotional resonance for readers. Getting kids really, deeply engaged in a narrative is something that books are very good at. It’s the working of the imagination: that time and cognitive space that you need to develop empathy and understanding of the characters, the plot, the emotion of the book. Add customization into the mix and it adds even more magic to storytime.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketing

Ypulse: Tell us about the latest book, My Golden Ticket.

AS: As with our global bestseller Lost My Name, the story is personalized to the owner’s name. Say your name is Sam. It begins with you, Sam, receiving a golden ticket and making your way to the factory as Charlie did, for a tour around its incredible, wondrous and bizarre rooms and inventions. Along the way, aspects of the story are adapted to the letters S, A, and M—for example in the Great Flavour Fairground, you play a slot machine where you win a Succulent Snozzberry. Later, you come across a block of rock candy that is “Astonishingly Airy.” And in the Fizzical Effects Machine, you are turned Microscopic. So, each child gets a unique experience of the chocolate factory depending on the letters of their name. And all those experiences get mixed together to make their own unique Wonka bar, printed in their book. This super-personalized candy bar is ingeniously generated for every child—right down to the color, shape, and even its flavor.

Ypulse: Wired reported that Wonderbly uses all the data you collect from customers to inform your strategy and how you personalize products. Can you tell us more about that?

AS: We use a lot of data from a huge range of sources. We mine as many areas as we can. Online behavior. Qualitative and quantitative surveys. Ethnographic interviews. Customer data, split across age, geography, gender, time of year, time of day, you name it. We have vast amounts of data, none of it coming from any central location or based on any fundamental assumptions. And if that data tells us that something could be better, or that something just isn’t working, or that customers hate the word “hate” (they do), then we can do something about it.

Nothing is fixed, or certain, not even data. Everything we do is uncertain, fluid. And we make no assumptions. We can use data accumulated after our books have been released, and change those books based on this data. For example, in our Fox story, it pulls a pot plant from its sack of items to be upcycled. In the U.K., a pot plant is a plant in a pot. In the U.S., we soon learned, it’s something very different.

All our products currently require customers to enter a binary gender of a child. Data told us that the front cover of our second title, The Incredible Intergalactic Journey Home, appealed far more to boys than girls. Although we require a gender to create the product, we aspire to make products with universal appeal — so if we see that a product is underperforming within a gender, we can take steps to alter the content or marketing and try and correct the imbalance.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingYpulse: On that same note, what are some things Wonderbly has learned from their past books? How are certain learnings informing future projects?

AS: My Golden Ticket is by far the most ambitious book that we have ever published and incorporates everything that we have learnt on personalization systems in the past 3 years.

We’ve learnt to put customer research at the forefront of new product development at Wonderbly. We began the creative process for My Golden Ticket with stimulus from a number of different in-home interviews and focus groups that we ran with Charlie fans. Questions like “What did you love about the original?” and “What would you want to do in the Chocolate Factory for the day?” helped us understand why Charlie has become such an enduring classic, and the limitless imagination that children associate with the Factory and Willy Wonka. We knew from this research at the outset that the Factory itself is the most compelling character in the book—and that every child longs to be invited. Early stage concepts and storyboards were sense checked and focused group with age-appropriate children (and their parents), and early copies of the book were sent out for children to read, digest, and comment upon. Their comments directly fed into key design decisions (like choosing not to represent the child physically in the book) and considerable language edits—helping to make the book more accessible and enjoyable.

Our Full Stack approach—we market and sell direct, we talk to our customers all the time, and we keep all our data about our customers in one place—has given us a unique insight into why our customers buy our books. As we grow, this helps us design better products that create even more magical moments between adults and kids.

Ypulse: There’s been a resurgence of many analog products from vinyl records to board games. What’s your opinion on this trend?

AS: When you become a parent, you often have a sudden, nostalgic compulsion to buy your child some of the things you had as a child. Books especially. To take some of the magic from that innocent time—before you knew about sex-tape politicians and Breaking Bad—and implant it directly into your child’s brain and heart. In a way, you’re time travelling back to your own childhood. Lots of people will identify with and approve of this. Nostalgic books like Where the Wild Things Are and The Very Hungry Caterpillar offer a welcome, charming respite from iPad babysitting and like-monitoring your baby photos on Facebook.

Wonderbly is part of a new wave of makers embracing technology as a means of conjuring up a nostalgic feeling of magic. The technology sits in the background; it makes amazing things possible, but the child’s focus is on the (non-digital) experience. This is what we’re doing at Wonderbly. We’re making storybooks magical for a new generation by creating impossible stories on a timeless medium, like a story that is entirely created out of a child’s name. It satisfies our historic love for books as well as our curiosity and excitement for software and services. And the hundreds of thousands of people that buy and love these books have shown us that we’re definitely not alone. That perhaps we’re finally moving past the period of seeing technology as an enemy of simple, analog magic.

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketing

Ypulse: On that same note, you topped the list of The Sunday Times’ Tech Track 100, standing out for selling physical products. Why do you think Wonderbly has grown so quickly?

AS: Personalized books aren’t new but the very first stories just slapped a child’s name in the book. We set out to turn the personalized book format into a credible creative endeavor, rather than a mere gimmick. We were the first company to use personalization in this way and there has been a real thirst for our books; when you first read one of our books with a child and see their face light up as they realize it’s their own unique adventure, that’s a magical moment.

Ypulse: What can other brands learn from Wonderbly’s success—or what should they keep in mind about creating products for young consumers today?

AS: We are big fans of the Lean Startup movement — a simple framework for reliably creating and building new startups in a world of uncertainty. We learned that it’s best to start small and to constantly strive to make your product or service better, all the time. We did this by testing and learning at every stage of our journey. Above all, keep going! It’s hard work and startups fail far more often than they succeed. Believe in yourself and your idea, keep improving, and don’t give up.

 

Millennial research, Millennial insight, Millennial marketing, Gen Z research, Gen Z marketing, Gen Z insight, youth research, youth marketingASI SHARABI

CO-FOUNDER & CEO, WONDERBLY

Asi Sharabi is a recovering ad man, a passionate advocate of “making stuff that matters,” and co-founder of Wonderbly, an award-winning startup that plays in the intersection between storytelling and technology.

Before Wonderbly, Asi enjoyed a varied career in planning and strategy, working at Poke, HyperSocial, and Sidekick Studios. In 2012, he founded Wonderbly (formerly Lost My Name) with friends Tal Oron, David Cadji-Newby, and Pedro Serapicos. They wanted to turn the personalized book format into a genuine creative canvas, rather than a commercial gimmick. Fast forward three years via Dragon’s Den and a $9 million investment round led by Google Ventures—Wonderbly is now a 75-person company that’s on a mission to inspire boundless self-belief in children.

Asi once read 12 bedtime stories to his three little daughters in a single evening.

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