Being intimately familiar with WebKinz World, I have been fascinated with the development of this network, mainly for the standpoint of the marketing. My familiarity? Our household is directly in the target market and I searched everywhere for a pink pony WebKinz for Christmas.
In all of the hoopla that surrounds social media marketing, the virtual world of Webkinz has quietly slipped into being the fastest growing social network online. The reason why it’s been so quiet? The target audience is 7-12 year olds. Ask most parents, and they are probably familiar with the virtual pet phenomenon, at least they will be familiar with being asked to buy the Webkinz.
In the past year, visitors to Webkinz have increased by 342% to more than six million unique visitors in November 2007 (ComScore). eMarketer estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million in 2007.
Social Network Marketing
Other social networks targeted at adults have been formed mainly out of hobbies and shared interests. Social networks are formed with the intent of gathering people; Marketing in these networks is an afterthought until the drive for a buy-out creates the need for monetization.
However, when it comes to the younger audiences, the social network and virtual worlds are created by brilliant marketers as a way to further the passion for the product. The primary purpose is marketing, which is concerning to me, as a parent and a marketer.
How Webkinz Works
Webkinz plays to the idea of an exclusive club – only those who purchase the plush toy will be granted access. In fact, it is called an “adoption” rather than a purchase. Webkinz is sort of like the old cabbage patch doll phenomenon. When you bought the doll you received a birth certificate for the doll, which initiated you into a club (so to speak).
Webkinz operates on a similar principle, but the code on the Webkinz, is also the code that allows you to adopt your pet online and have access into the virtual world. Once a child has that access, they are now responsible to care for their animal that has “come to life” in this virtual world. This caters to and develops the nurturing play of children.
Interestingly, you simply cannot wander Webkinz World, you eventually have to purchase a house and furnish it for your Webkinz pet. You do this by playing games and earning money. With the money you earn, you can buy more items for your Webkinz, such a bigger house, a pool, a bed, furniture, TV, etc.
Social interaction in WebKinz World is limited, thank God. When my daughter told me that she made a friend and was chatting with them online – I freaked. This is what got me into learning more about Webkinz. Chatting in Webkinz World is a series of pre-programmed statements. Children choose which statement their pet will say to the other pet, and they can choose to friend each other from there. They can also choose to share recipes, such as a waffle, strawberry, and spicy pizza combination called “mizzleberry jacks.” There is no direct one-to one interaction at this point. Children feel as though they actually have real conversations and talks about them as if they were real and these new friends are real. As a parent – I like that, but it does make me wonder about the new definition of the word “friend”.
There is an additional paid service that will allow direct chat in Webkinz World, but parents have to pay for the service and choose to permit the direct chat, called KinzChat Plus. Even in the KinsChat Plus, the chat is limited, as the words must match a restricted dictionary. This prevents addresses, phone numbers, and words from entering the conversations.
Every marketer (and parent) knows that a child begging for a toy is one of the most powerful persuasive tactics to sell a product. Thus, the key to successfully targeting children to be your product evangelist. They have very few filters when it comes to toys, cereals, and speaking their mind. That’s a powerful combination for a marketer who would like to get their product into a household. Webkinz has been able to grab a hold of this market and reinforce itself in the process.
The interface is very easy for children to access and understand. Preschoolers are able to use Webkinz, especially if they have older siblings that can teach them. What is most concerning; however, is the advertising that is proliferates the site. Advertisements for movies and toys are constant throughout the website, and many marketers are licking their chops for the exposure to this young audience.
Webkinz has revolutionized the offline-online interaction and measurement gap and created a safe virtual playground for children. It allows them to socialize (albeit, restricted) online and have experiences that adults have never imagined or experienced. They are growing up with a virtual world, whereas most adults have never heard of or even entered Second Life.
While most social networks are looking for ways to merge on-line and off-line marketing, WebKinz took both head-on and has developed an amazing network of plush toys, trading cards, charms, body spritz, bookmarks, lip gloss, clothing, mouse pads, backpacks and purses. All purchases come with valuable codes that provide “gifts” for your adopted pet. For any analyst, the ability to track the online-to-offline purchasing and behavior would be a dream come true.
Virtual Worlds Marketing to Children
Disney is already in full swing, creating multiple virtual worlds for young audiences. Disney’s Club Penguin attracts seven more times the traffic of Second Life (NYTimes.com). Nickelodeon is spending $100 million to develop virtual worlds targeted to children.
I am fascinated, as a marketer, of the creativity that is on display for children. Most children’s sites (PBSKids.org, Noggin.com, and NickJr.com) have offered a wide range of creative, interesting and safe websites. The draw of these games and websites has reached a new, younger generation of children that are more familiar with a computer than a TV.
As both a parent and a marketer, there is a dark side to all of this. I remember growing up and seeing commercials during Saturday morning cartoons. We watched them as the portal to see all that was new and exciting. Now, children have advertising surrounding them, but very little of the rational skills that are necessary for evaluating those messages.
Consider that social networks that adults are involved with have nowhere near the advertising that these worlds have developed for children. Adult social networks are not built for marketing, but children’s social networks are being built for that express purpose.
When Facebook’s Beacon program was found to be too invasive, privacy advocates screamed. Privacy advocates are screaming for children, but not as many want to hear their concerns. Toy companies and marketers are lining up to be part of these networks aimed at kids.
Take this how you will . . .
This is where my parental role trumps that of the marketer. It is my responsibility to raise my child, not a website’s. It is ultimately the parents that need to take an active role in knowing what your child is doing online and how it can help or hurt them. Educating children about marketing and how to evaluate marketing messages will be critical as more and more marketers see children as a “gold mine” for marketing-entertainment.
Parents need to ask themselves, who is looking out for the health, welfare and best interest of their children? While virtual worlds can be entertaining and educational, parents need to be aware of the real motivations behind these networks.
“All the stars are aligning for virtual worlds to become a mass-market form of entertainment, especially for kids . . . .”
Paul Yanover, executive vice president and managing director of Disney Online.