For my second to last blog post, I had the privilege of talking to BC alum Michael Hundgen, a CSOM graduate. Michael is currently a Director of Content at The Walt Disney Company and was previously a senior Manager of Digital Content Strategy. Mashable has also written an article about Michael and his team, as to what their day-to-day is, and I urge you to check that out as well. The Walt Disney Company is obviously beloved by billions globally, including myself, and I thought it would be interesting for our class to get a behind-the-scenes look at how Disney, one the of the biggest companies in the world, tackles the online space.
What led you from Boston College to Disney?
M: When I was at Boston College I was a finance major. I thought I would grow up to be an investment banker or work on Wall Street, and the summer before my senior year I had the opportunity to work on the TV show Survivor. That sort of changed the trajectory a bit because I had always loved television, production, and things like that. So when the opportunity to work on Survivor came up, I took it. I was also up for a finance program at GE at the time and it was between that and Survivor so I jumped on Survivor. That started my career in business and entertainment. I moved to New York and worked at CBS in marketing but then a year later, I told myself the action was in Los Angeles. The entertainment business was in Los Angeles. I felt like I needed to be there. So I packed my bags in New York and moved here in the summer of 2006, and then 10 years later here we are.
I had loved Disney from childhood, I’m a big fan of the brand, the parks, the movies, and I knew that eventually I would love to find a way inside in the company. That opportunity presented itself in 2011 when Disney was really gearing up for their social media team and trying to figure how to tackle things like Facebook, Twitter, and the website we manage. I joined that team in the spring of 2011.
The Mashable article mentions a “Disney newsroom,” so could you just elaborate as to what that was about?
M: We create content on behalf of the brand across all kinds of platforms. We manage social media to website to apps to video portals. Everyday we create content whether that’s on Instagram or a tweet or a video, our team is out there making content for the digital space.
— Disney (@Disney) December 1, 2016
Does your team have different strategies when it comes to tackling different platforms?
M: Think of the platforms as you treat them. So if you go on Twitter for news, how would a company want to engage there? If you’re curating these beautiful photos on Instagram of your life, think about how a big brand might want to engage there. We try and treat these platforms as our fans treat them or engage with them because it doesn’t make sense to kind of juxtapose what you might expect to see from a friend and then see something completely different from a brand. We try to emulate what our guests’ actions our in each of the spaces.
Is there anything cool or interesting that is going on at Disney right now?
M: There’s, of course, VR and AR, those are becoming more widespread among users. But I think the thing that’s really happening right now is that all these platforms are trying to get into live video, whether that is Facebook or YouTube or Muscial.ly or Instagram. The live video aspect is really interesting because I think it really is competing for the attention span of traditional media, and so how do you differentiate? Where do you invest your time and energy? With so many platforms doing live video, do you do one-size fits all strategy? Do you hone in on specific platforms with specific needs? I think that will be interesting as it rolls through 2017.
Yeah I actually researched that the other day about how Facebook is really trying to emulate Snapchat with their own filters and acquisitions (shameless plug if you want to read that blog too), and it’s interesting to see how these platforms are evolving.
M: Yeah, the fun thing about digital and social is that it changes all the time. Look at Vine, a year and a half ago, Vine was making all these headlines as the next big thing and all these influencers were investing time into Vine. And now here we are, a year and a half later, and Vine’s gone. It’s just amazing how the medium changes especially with regards with other mediums that have been around for a long time. Cable was big game changer in the television business but it was a one-time change that had an effect for many, many years. It wasn’t ongoing thing. Whereas in digital Facebook is out there, Snapchat stories, Instagram stories, and things like that, and that changes month by month.
While at Disney, have any of your attempts to roll out content or tackle a platform just been a failure?
M: Speaking largely here, I think that’s the beauty of digital. You can try things, experiment and the invest cost is relatively low compare to other mediums. The audience tells you really quickly whether it works or doesn’t work. Fortunately, we work with great brands and characters that people love. We are given that great responsibility and that comes with a lot of care and consideration of how we portray those brands and characters. In digital we try lots of different things, sometimes things are home runs and they get great engagement and sometimes they just don’t make the same effect we would’ve hoped. But, on the whole I think the medium is a bit more forgiving with respect to that. That said, there are lots of ways you can trip up. There’s also a risk when you are a big brand and all of sudden you put your Twitter account in the hands of people, there can be human error or judgement in that. We’ve seen that in lots of companies over the years but largely, we care about the brand so much at Disney that we don’t want to be in a position to justify a mistake.
On the flipside, is there anything that you worked on at Disney that you’re really proud of or had a resounding success?
M: Yeah, I’ll speak about the video work that we do. Video has become such an important part of digital strategy because the eyeballs and platforms have really moved that way. If you look at our Facebook pages, our Instagram handle, or our website, we have done a lot of great video content that help makes the brand more relatable to the audience through the medium. It’s not commercial, it doesn’t feel like it’s broadcasted, it feels like “oh that’s something that you would see on the internet from Disney.” There’s a lot examples through the years. Early on we did this video where Darth Vader goes to Disneyland in preparation for his new attraction opening. You see Darth Vader on tea cups and Dumbo, and it’s a super fun juxtaposition of a menacing character on pretty innocent rides and attractions. That was my first task at work and since then, there have been a lot of those moments of getting to work on getting incredible fun tasks. These brands are so fantastic so we’re very lucky to represent these brands in digital.
Obviously, like you were saying, Disney has a huge allure but does working at Disney ruin some of the “magic” or are you able to separate work from play?
M: For me, it’s a joy to work on brand that brings this much happiness to others. It’s a lot of fun. We carry great responsibility, like I said, these brands mean something. There’s a lot a passion and fervor for these brands in a way that is unparalleled. And so, to get to play in that space, to get to impact many people, since digital is so pervasive, and to get to represent a brand like this is great. I love the job and people we work with, and I hope to be here for a long time.
I know you said live video is the big thing at Disney right now and for the coming future, but outside of that, what do you see relationship for Disney and digital business being moving forward, speculating even up to 5 years from now?
M: I think in this space it is so hard to predict anything for the next few years. I mean look, 5 years ago Instagram and Snapchat weren’t even around and YouTube was only 5 years old really. I’ll speak for brands at large, I think the assumption is that the space is growing and we’re seeing more and more people spend time with mobile devices and tablets. I think the trick is being nimble enough and adaptable enough to sort of roll with the trends as they come and go. But also, be true to what your brand represents, whether that is a big entertainment company or a cleaning product or a vacation destination. Whatever your brand values are, you shouldn’t change them for digital. The key is trying to find new ways to express these values through these platforms. I think they’ll be a big part of the future for all of us and it’s exciting that BC is investing time in teaching you guys about it.
I hope you guys enjoyed reading our discussion as much as I enjoyed talking to Michael and I just want to say thank you again to Michael for taking the time out to talk to me about the digital magic of Disney!