IAC Touts Kid-Oriented Virtual World

NEW YORK While virtual-world powerhouses like Second Life have begun to draw doubters, smaller, kid-oriented environments are showing they have staying power.

In a sign the space is heating up, IAC is kicking off a $5 million TV campaign to promote Zwinky, a virtual environment that has begun to boom. Zwinky, where users can build and customize avatars for use on social networks and interact in a virtual world, now boasts more than 8 million members who spend over an hour on the site per session. It is the core of a Web fun products division that is now a $100 million business, thanks in large part to the requirement that users download a toolbar with IAC’s search engine.

“The reality is it’s an explosive and fast-growing business for us,” said Scott Garell, CEO of IAC’s consumer applications and portals division. “We think the Web is going to a place where people want to express themselves beyond a flat Web page.”

Virtual worlds like Second Life gained much media and advertiser attention over the past year, yet have recently been criticized for everything from inappropriate user activities to desolate brand outposts.

Yet child- and teen-oriented virtual worlds like Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel and Barbie Girls are all reporting growing user numbers. Earlier this month, Disney inked a deal potentially worth $700 million to buy Club Penguin, a children’s site that generates revenue by selling virtual trinkets and clothing, not through ads. Mattel’s Barbie Girls virtual world attracted 3 million members in its first two months.

IAC joined the group with the launch of Zwinktopia in April. Until then, Zwinky let users make avatars, which they would then embed in their MySpace or other social network pages.

The spot is the second commercial Zwinky has run. In the spring, it ran a commercial that emphasized the site’s personalization capabilities, urging viewers to “Be anyone.” A new in-house-created spot breaking next week is again emphasizing the customization theme, but also tries to position Zwinky as the go-to virtual environment for teens (particularly girls) interested in fashion and music to meet and interact. The tagline urges viewers to “Join the party.”

IAC enlisted the services of up-and-coming pop stars Lil Mama and Jason Fox to perform in the animated commercial, which shows cartoonish Zwinky avatars. Both artists have held events in the virtual world, and 50 Cent is opening a lounge there, where users can listen to samples of his music and order his upcoming album, Curtis. Some events, such as one held in conjunction with Live Earth last month, draw up to 250,000 participants, Garrell said. Like other virtual worlds, Zwinktopia has its own currency, Z-Bucks, which enable residents to buy virtual and eventually real-life goods.

IAC will run the commercials throughout the month on NBC during daytime programming favored by teen girls, such as the daytime soaps Passions and Days of Our Lives. The work will run 26 times, in 15- and 30-second versions.

Garell said that while media attention often goes to metaverses like Second Life, virtual environments like Zwinktopia have more promise for deep, effective advertising.

“They’re not controlling the environment,” he said. “Someone will buy an island, and if people come, they do—if they don’t, they don’t. We’re able to fully control our environment. Second Life is a wide-open frontier.”

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