Creating an immersive digital experience for an iconic brand

This is the story of how we created a dynamic, immersive digital experience to delight both adults and children.

In brief

Ahead of The Gruffalo's 15th anniversary, Pan Macmillan approached us to create an immersive online world for The Gruffalo, recognising the existing website wasn’t good enough for its digitally native audience.

Knowing that the answer lay in addressing the core audience, we put ourselves in front of The Gruffalo’s primary audience – 3 to 8 year-olds – sat back, listened and learned.

The result

Discovering young children are highly capable of playing autonomously on devices, absorbed in stimulating activity, we created a captivating and mobile-first online experience – The Deep Dark Wood.

And whilst children explored, played and learnt in this immersive digital world, the secondary audience – adults – could download teaching materials, buy Gruffalo merchandise, enter competitions and join singalongs with their children.

The results were as gratifying as they were impressive. The new Gruffalo site received an increase of over 35,000 average monthly users and 70% of new visits were from over 160 countries. An average page load time of less than two seconds was achieved. And visitors spent an average of four minutes on the site, with 10% of traffic spending over 10 minutes on the site each time they visited.

Distinction’s team worked with us from the very conception of the project. This highly collaborative approach meant a wide range of people from inside and outside the business were able to feed into the projects. The result has been a huge success not only for adults, children, Julia Donaldson and the Gruffalo team, but in the wider Macmillan global group.
- James Luscombe, Marketing Technology Director

The full story

Creating a new dynamic and immersive website which would delight both children and adults alike took a voyage of discovery on how 3 to 8 year-olds engage with stories, games, even technology itself. Improving the CX didn’t just delight the site visitors, it also produced brilliant results too, including an increase of over 35,000 average monthly visitors, with 70% of new visits from over 160 countries.

Happily lost in the deep dark woods

A global brand like ‘The Gruffalo’ and its series of books has many owners. First and foremost, there’s its visionary creator, author Julia Donaldson. Then there’s the books’ illustrator, Axel Scheffler, who has brought a captivating cast of characters to magical life. Then there’s the books’ publishers – Pan Macmillan – the people who approached Distinction with a simple goal: to provide an engaging global online presence for the Gruffalo ahead of the book’s 15th anniversary.

Addressing the core audience

But the truth is, more than anything, that the Gruffalo belongs to its readers, the children whose imaginations continue to be fired and who remain enduringly attracted to the enchanting woodland beast.

So while Pan Macmillan’s challenge was clear – in recognising the existing website was lagging behind every other aspect of merchandise, from toys to TV to pop-up events –the solution was equally clear to Distinction. This was to turn to the children and learn what they wanted from a new Gruffalo website.

Finding the right path

So we put ourselves in front of the primary target audience – 3 to 8 year-olds – and sat back and learned, and learned, and learned.

We discovered that given the right stimulus, they could lose themselves in a fantasy world. Interestingly, we found children to be much more capable playing on digital devices than even their parents knew. Most of all, we learned that even young children could be pretty autonomous, and capable of occupying themselves for ten minutes or more, absorbed in stimulating activity.

Creating an immersive world

To answer the children’s wishes, we created a beautifully immersive world called ‘The Deep Dark Wood’. Here, children were free to explore, play, and do anything they wanted. Filling the screen, and rich with child-friendly games and activities, here our aim of giving children plenty to do, plenty to read, plenty to learn, plenty to enjoy was brought to vivid life.

Beautifully illustrated by our friends at Aardman Animation, this mobile-first online experience also featured stories and singalongs with author Julia Donaldson.

Answering the secondary audience

Of course, whereas children are looking for fun, the adult’s agenda is slightly different. This meant including teaching materials, opportunities to buy Gruffalo books, toys and merchandise, and clear signals for activities that would be sure to keep kids busy and happy.

Without disrupting the immersive world, the children are busily enjoying, we included a host of downloadable activity sheets, pictures to colour and stories to read. And because we always aimed to promote deeper engagement, we made certain that a two-way path made it easy and fun to enter competitions, win prizes, share photos, and upload content.

Straddling many different fences

Naturally, there were obstacles along the way. With so many different stakeholders having investment in the Gruffalo brand it meant meeting all kinds of different agendas. Not having easy or regular access to the author and illustrator meant the decision line was principally through the publisher.

But, as we’ve experienced time and again, by earning trust as the impartial and independent project leader, and by evidencing the need to put the audience first, the Distinction team was freed to act quickly and decisively on delivering a website that to this day remains a user-centric joy.

Delighting in unexpected ways

It’s a source of great pride to us that we were able to delight the children and the parents and, ultimately, Julia Donaldson, who was thrilled with the results when we first revealed the new website.

In doing so, we revealed a few extra tricks up our sleeves. Another delight was in the Easter eggs we dotted through the site. Keeping quiet about the hidden events we’d secretly built into the site, they revealed themselves as they should…to the unexpected pleasure of unsuspecting witnesses. The ant crawling across the screen mid-meeting is just one example.

Delivering an engaging world, across the world

We built the site using HTML5 and JavaScript to ensure it works across all major platforms and devices. The site is also easy to edit and update with new events, activities and content. And it’s hosted in Microsoft’s Azure cloud to make sure it can cope with spikes in traffic following a series of successful marketing and TV campaigns.

First created in 2008, it’s rewarding to see that despite regular up-dates, the website today remains the same as the one we first launched. It’s testimony to the quality of our initial hard work and pleasing for Pan Macmillan who have not had to invest majorly in the site since its arrival on the world stage.


The results were as gratifying as they were impressive. The site received an increase of over 35,000 average monthly users and 70% of new visits were from over 160 countries. An average page load time of less than two seconds was achieved. And visitors spent an average of four minutes on the site, with 10% of traffic spending over 10 minutes on the site each time they visited.

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