Children’s Virtual Worlds take off

On the last day of 2007, the New York Times published an article titled Web Playgrounds of the Very Young that predicted continued growth in online communities that cater to children. The article focused on two Canadian success stories, Kelowna’s Club Penguin & Toronto’s Webkinz.

Forget Second Life. The real virtual world gold rush centers on the grammar-school set. Trying to duplicate the success of blockbuster Web sites like Club Penguin and Webkinz, children’s entertainment companies are greatly accelerating efforts to build virtual worlds for children. Media conglomerates in particular think these sites — part online role-playing game and part social scene — can deliver quick growth, help keep movie franchises alive and instill brand loyalty in a generation of new customers.

Second Life and other virtual worlds for grown-ups have enjoyed intense media attention in the last year but fallen far short of breathless expectations. The children’s versions are proving much more popular, to the dismay of some parents and child advocacy groups. Now the likes of the Walt Disney Company, which owns Club Penguin, are working at warp speed to pump out sister sites.

For those of you without school-age kids, Webkinz allows children to care for stuffed animals (Webkinz is owned by Ganz) purchased offline that come with codes that unlock digital content and bring their pets to life.

More than six million unique visitors logged on to Webkinz in November, up 342% from the previous year, according to ComScore Media Metrix. 

At Club Penguin, children dress and groom penguin characters and play games with them. As Disney’s biggest online world, Club Penguin attracts seven times more traffic than Second Life. It was bought last August from three entrepreneurs from Kelowna in a deal worth $700 million. At the time, more than 700,000 members paid fees of $5.95 a month, delivering annual revenue of almost $50 million.

This trend is backed up by research from eMarketer who estimates that 20 million children will be members of a virtual world by 2011, up from 8.2 million today.

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