Oct 2007 Virtual Worlds Open New Universe for Kids and Teens Online

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Virtual Worlds Open New Universe for Kids and Teens Online, October 2007

Marketers are still trying to figure out how to reach young audiences on social networking sites, but there is a new game in town: virtual worlds.

By mingling aspects of video gaming, social networking and communicating, virtual worlds have struck a winning chord with young boys and girls alike. According to eMarketer, 24% of the 34.3 million US child and teen Internet users will visit virtual worlds once a month in 2007. This will rise to 34% in 2008 and by 2011, 53% will do so.

Children and teens interact with media in different ways. As they grow up, TV becomes less important and the Internet more important, according to a 2006 survey by Mindshare. The Internet would be far more missed by teens than by tweens ages 8 to 12.

However, the appeal of virtual worlds extends across age groups. For young children, virtual worlds link the Internet with offline play, as the popularity of toy-related worlds such as Webkinz has shown. For teens who are already experimenting with online social networks, virtual worlds offer a new and potentially engaging way to interact with others.

Several virtual world sites attracted at least 2 million US unique visitors in July 2007, according to comScore Media Metrix. These include Webkinz, with 5.2 million unique visitors, Club Penguin with 5 million and Stardoll with 2.3 million visitors. It is important to note that this data only measures the number of visitors to virtual world Web sites. Some worlds, such as Second Life and the worlds operated by MTV, require a software download and are not accessed through a browser.

Monetizing this traffic is the obvious next step. Advertising is a growing revenue stream for child and teen virtual worlds, with products being integrated into all the action. Parks Associates estimated in June 2007 that $15 million was spent advertising in virtual worlds in the US in 2006 and projected that it would rise tenfold to $150 million in 2012. The figures do not include marketer branded virtual worlds nor other revenue sources, such as micro-transactions or subscription fees.

Although many virtual worlds offer some sort of banner ad, they all aim for premium advertising that elicits deeper involvement and interaction. The biggest selling point that virtual worlds offer brands is the ability to engage users and get them to interact in a hands-on way, virtually speaking.

The bad news may be that it is difficult to know what all this virtual interaction really means. What value is there in a persons avatar drinking a Pepsi? Or wearing a shirt bought from a virtual store? What if that persons virtual activities have no bearing on their real-world activities?

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