"Stickiness" is making a comeback, if recent press chatter is any indication. So what's the stickiest site on the Internet? Is it Yahoo, which, according to Nielsen//NetRatings, takes the traffic cake at 22 billion page views a month? Is it eBay's 42 million-strong registered user base?
For sheer interaction time and per-user page views, neither comes close to a youth site called Neopets.com.
You may not have heard of it, but your neighbor's kid probably has. Neopets.com, based in Glendale, Calif., is the home of a complex multi-player fantasy game geared to kids and teenagers. According to the company, it consistently garners upwards of 1,000 monthly page views per active user and interaction times of more than four hours, leaving all the major portals in its wake. Global membership is above 23 million, of which approximately 11 million are active monthly users. The site totals approximately 4.2 billion page views per month from a diverse audience of kids, teens and young adults.
Buying ads in games, and creating so-called advergames, have both become increasingly popular with advertisers seeking to tap into the affinity users have with their playthings. That's why Neopets' management is leveraging its immersive gaming model to create some lucrative and innovative marketing packages.
On Neopets.com, members create virtual pets, which they guide through a series of trials and adventures in a mythical land called Neopia. Game players can fight, learn abilities, feed their pets, buy armor and weapons, read books, talk to magical critters, even open a shop and sell supplies to other players around the world. Yes, Neopia has a sophisticated economy too. The currency? Neopoints, of course.
Kids play for hours, wandering through a seemingly endless labyrinth of interfaces. The numbers reflect that. Most youth sites do less than 100 monthly per-user page views, whereas Neopets.com does 10 times that.
There's one main rule for brand advertisers who want in on this audience: Ad impressions must be integrated with the Neopets universe. Banners and pop-ups need not apply, according to Neopets Executive VP Rik Kinney.
"If you're collaborating with other Neopets to fend off an attack by Dr. Sloth and his evildoers, and a Dell computer pop-up ad appears, that takes away from the fantasy," he said.
Otherwise, the sky's the limit when integrating a brand into the Neopets environment. Kinney said brand and product placements in Neopia generate a strong awareness lift among players.
"Because they're playing a game and earning points and so forth, they're quite focused on what they're doing," said Kinney. "The absorption of information is very good, and that shows up in pre- and post-play surveys. The affinity people have for the game is transferred to products and services, and that translates to increased purchase intent."
The company's relationship with General Mills provides some sense of what's possible for advertisers on Neopets.com. Embedded within Neopia are 166 arcade-style games kids can play to earn points to spend on food and supplies for their virtual pets, and General Mills has deployed several branded versions of these to good effect. Two recently added games, with Trix and Lucky Charms branding, resemble much of the other content on the site.
When it posted the games, Neopets put a note up on the site: "You can play two new games, the Lucky Charms Clover Rover and Trix Jungle Jumble. Be sure to check them out, as they are awarding lots of Neopoints and are great fun... You can also install a Cocoa Puffs Screensaver. Feel free to recommend it to a friend!"
MacDonald's has a branded shop in Neopia, which contains various clues and games, as well as a McDonald's stamp card that can be filled up to earn Neopoints. In addition to providing long brand exposure times, these features are designed to be fun.
The Ethics of Marketing to Kids
Neopets at first worried its members would hate the presence of real-world products in their made-up play land, but Kinney said the reaction has been quite positive. A series of surveys found only two to three percent didn't like the idea.
"A very small number of our page views contain marketing or branded content -- less than one percent -- so it's a novelty when they do come across it," he said.
A big part of Neopets' ad strategy, then, is a deliberate scarcity of marketing content. But the sheer breadth of material on the site means there's still plenty of room for branded content.
If there's any marketing Neopets.com that may raise an eyebrow from the children's privacy watchdogs, it's the email marketing offers that riddle the site registration process. Several auto-checked boxes promise marketing emails, which begs the question of whether the site's young audience is savvy enough to understand the full implications of an opt-in.
The company manages this issue by requiring parental consent before collecting email addresses for kids under 13. The company gets between 400 and 600 such consent forms faxed to its offices daily, and more come in through a P.O. Box.
Neopets also practices full disclosure in advertising. Every page on Neopets.com containing sponsored content is tagged with a message identifying it as such.
"We don't make our members engage in any sponsored games," Kinney said. "The task for us is making sure sponsored games are as entertaining as regular site content."
Like TV, Only... Different
Neopets.com, which launched in 2000, is now a global enterprise. The site has been translated into Chinese, Korean, Spanish, French, German, Italian and Japanese. It's almost a surprise to learn the site was not initially launched in Japanese, as the aesthetic is very Pokemon-esque.
"There's no intentional use of a Japanese style," according to Kinney. "We have an enormously creative team of artists and programmers. Whatever interests and influences they have [translate to the site]."
Artists and programmers make up almost half of the company's 120-person staff, the main reason the gaming interface is so rich and varied. Other employees and divisions include ad sales and merchandising, another big revenue earner.
The company doesn't advertise, but relies instead on word of mouth to increase its audience.
"When we started in April 2000... it was still possible to spend your way to success with advertising. We felt if the site experience isn't engaging enough to draw people, then the problem is with the interface."
"Our vision was to create an entertainment destination similar to a TV network [model]," he said. "Every episode has to be fresh, new and as good as the last episode, if not better."
Neopets.com has fulfilled that vision, delivering an engaging online experience that is unrivalled among youth sites. For advertisers interested in learning more, the best way to get more familiar with Neopets is to register with the site and play for a while.
"You can always justify this kind of behavior as research," Kinney said.
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Until March 2012, Zach Rodgers was managing editor of ClickZ's award-winning coverage of news and trends in digital marketing. He reported on the rise of web companies, data markets, ad technologies, and government Internet policy, among other subjects.
March 19, 2014