Much is said about the increase in social network traffic among teens, but many tweens and teens are also heading into virtual worlds. Unlike social networks, these digital worlds allow users to interact with one another via 3D representations, or avatars. And unlike the most well known virtual world, Second Life, a number of virtual realms caters directly to a younger demographic.
The space is still so new, there isn't a clear tally of the virtual world population; yet the number of registered users for kids and teen worlds is growing. Urban teen environment Doppelganger has nearly 150,000 registered members, while PG-13 site There.com has 1 million members, 70 percent of whom are between the ages of 13 and 26. Self-described "edutainment" site for tweens, Whyville, has 2.3 million users.
"The audience in any given kids virtual is so small right now, but nonetheless the view is these things will grow rapidly in the next few years, so getting a grasp of this marketing knowledge is going to be important to have," said Joe Laszlo, senior analyst with Jupiter Research. "The short term benefit is the highly engaged audience....The long term view is these things will get bigger over time and become a more important social space."
Adult-oriented Second Life maintains a laissez-faire approach to its virtual world, providing users the ability to purchase digital tracts of land or virtual currency with real world funds, and does not intervene in most transactions.
This has opened the door for other companies to build virtual worlds with controls and regulations intended to protect children and appeal to parents. Such sites can be classified into three categories. Virtual worlds like Club Penguin, Disney's Toon Town, WebKinz and Nicktropolis mainly are for kids aged 8 to 14 or younger, while PG-13 regulated worlds like Doppelganger, There.com and MTV's Virtual Laguna Beach are for more mature users aged 15 and up. Finally, tween worlds like anime-oriented Gaia Online, and edutainment site Whyville straddle the line between the two.
"It's reaching the new demographic that isn't watching television anymore. They are on the computer and this is what they do," said Dean Khial, vice president of business development and expansion for Kitson, a boutique clothing store. "From a business standpoint it's a great opportunity to reach a huge demographic, not only that knows Kitson, but the huge number that doesn’t know us that will learn about us through the virtual world."
Kitson, along with hip-hop themed clothing brand Rocawear, both recently launched stores as part of virtual world Doppelganger to reach teens. Not only did Kitson have an exact replica of its Los Angeles-based flagship store placed within the virtual world allowing avatars to purchase digital Kitson clothes; it also directly linked to the store's ecommerce site. If users like what they have virtually, they can purchase the item directly from through Doppelganger, and at a discount.
Simply putting a banner or virtual billboard into Doppelganger wouldn't have effectively reached users there, according to Andrew Littlefield, founder and chief creative officer for Doppelganger.
Attracting the Savviest Market
"The biggest problem you face with actually addressing teens today is they've been the target of the world's most sophisticated marketing campaigns since they were babies," said Littlefield. "Anything that you bring to advertise to them too obviously really doesn't work."
To appeal to teens, advertisers and virtual worlds often team-up around themes that are clear fits, such as music, entertainment, clothing and electronics, but marketers need to engage their audience to keep them coming back. Recently, There.com signed an agreement with Capitol Music Group to bring music artists into its world, and created a series of virtual nightclubs for them to play in. More than that, users will be able to watch videos and interact with band members.
"The artists are realizing they need to be more involved with their market," said Michael Wilson, CEO of There. "And this is a more efficient way to meet a fan, to change the engagement with them from a few moments to minutes."
While worlds targeting older teens can provide ad opportunities to potential marketers, others intended for younger users have disallowed any form of advertising whatsoever. Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis launched this year without advertising, and Club Penguin, another kid-oriented world, "Made a very conscious decision to have a strict no-advertising policy," according to Karen Mason, communications director for Club Penguin. Instead, Club Penguin draws its funding from subscriptions and some retail clothing sales.
The space between ad-free zones and teen-centric worlds will "probably be the category that will be the fertile ground for advertisers," said Reuben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us, a social media agency. "And the most successful ones will be the ones that use programs for the participation of the company that enhance the overall experience rather than feeling intrusive."
Already, tween-oriented worlds have seen a number of success stories as advertisers have reached out to a teenage market. For example, both Gaia Online and Whyville worked with Toyota on a Scion car promotion. After launching a virtual car ownership promotion "In the first three hours we had 29,000 Gaia users getting a car and showing it off to their friends," according to Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia Online.
The key to promoting to any age group in virtual worlds is to give them an incentive to participate, according to Ian Schafer, ClickZ columnist and CEO of Deep Focus. His firm ran a promotion on Gaia Online for the New Line film "The Last Mimzy," offering members a virtual magic stuffed rabbit for their avatars similar to the one in the movie, if they watched a preview online.
"Their avatars were able to carry it around, and you start getting word-of-mouth with that promotion," said Schafer. Afterwards, participants were asked whether they had seen the movie during its opening weekend. "Fifty percent said 'Yes,' they had," said Schafer.
Tween virtual worlds have also moved beyond pure advertising in efforts to educate users. In addition to virtual music concerts, Whyville introduced its users to a simulated ecological catastrophe to help promote the children's version of Al Gore's book "An Inconvenient Truth."
"Any other medium can simply promote the book, but at Whyville we created global warming within the world of Whyville and the kids are dealing with it," said Jay Goss, chief operating officer of Numedeon, Whyville’s parent company. "We just had a tropical storm occur in Whyville."
The company also partnered with the Center for Disease Control (CDC) to help promote kids getting flu shots by creating a virtual epidemic that players' avatars would have to be inoculated from. The CDC also used Whyville as part of a larger online initiative to inform families about the dangers of influenza.
"The thing that was most impressive about this activity was the sheer numbers we got. It ran for six weeks in Whyville and was set up with no promotion; we just showed up one day," said Erin Edgerton, content lead for interactive media for the division of ehealth marketing at the CDC's national center for health marketing. "And in the six weeks there were 134,421 visits to the vaccination room. We virtually vaccinated just under 19,572 unique Whyvill-ians."
"It's really reaching these tweens the way they want to be reached, but giving them something to do while interacting with the advertisers message, as opposed to passively receiving the advertisers message," said Numedeon's Goss.
Best Practices Emerge
As advertisers and marketers explore virtual worlds to reach a younger demographic, best practices are emerging. "The first thing to do is spend a significant amount of time in that virtual world," said Deep Focus's Schafer. "Unless you understand the behavior of the people in that virtual world you are going to come across as disingenuous or inauthentic."
As virtual worlds mature, even if their users don't, industry watchers predict a growing number of virtual worlds for kids and teens will launch, and marketing opportunities will follow.
"To not add a virtual world to your media mix is the same as saying you don't know where your audience is. This is where they are," said Erik Hauser, executive creative director and founder of experiential agency Swivel Media.
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