Virtual Communities for Kids Reach Millions of Visitors per Month; Big Businesses Taking Notice

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As online communities for kids begin to crop up, investors and advertisers are seeing new opportunities to target the under-14 demographic.

CartoonDollEmporium.com, a website where girls dress up cartoon dolls and chat about their favorite celebrities, received 1.1 million visitors last month, making it one of the most popular online destinations for girls. The website, founded by 25 year-old entrepreneur Evan Bailyn, is only 7 months old, yet it has already gained a large enough viewership to make it one of two major players in the emerging ‘Dress Up’ sector of the $1 Billion casual gaming industry.

“What kids love about our site is the fantasy element” explains Bailyn. “Everyone has their own cartoon avatar, and can adopt any personality they wish. Kids spend hours on the site playing role-playing games, creating their own fan clubs, and discussing their favorite celebrities. And of course they can chat about music, video games, crushes, or anything else that’s on their mind. As a kid, it’s really exciting to be a part of this other world where you have a lot more influence than in real life.”

Up until recently, there was no major online social outlet for the under-14 demographic; all of the big communities like MySpace and Xanga were designed for older users. Now, Cartoon Doll Emporium is among a handful of places where kids spend their time online.

But it is not only kids who have taken interest in online communities. Recently, businesses have realized that there is a huge untapped market in providing kids with a place to hang out online. Neopets.com, a site where users can raise their own virtual pets and use online currency to buy their pets accessories, was purchased by Viacom for $160 million in June of last year. The Cartoon Network just announced the 2008 launch of a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG) aimed at “tweens.”

Each of these communities employs a different approach to enticing viewers, yet all are similar in their general aim: bringing kids ages 6 to 14 together to chat and play games. Cartoon Doll Emporium’s initial draw is its cartoon dolls -- large, hand-drawn characters that either depict celebrities, wear high-fashion clothes, or participate in elaborate fantasy scenes.

The cartoon dolls craze began over ten years ago, when a few small websites began creating pixilated images known as “dollz” to be used as avatars. Since then it has gained an enormous following (some estimate it in the millions) and hundreds of cartoon doll websites have sprung up by hobbyists and businesspeople alike. As with online communities in general, the business world has been receptive to the idea of dress up communities. Stardoll.com, a celebrity dress up site, was recently granted $6 million by Sequoia Capital, the same firm that originally invested in Google and Yahoo.

Some analysts have been doubtful of investments like Sequoia’s, stating that dressing up celebrities is not a successful business idea. Yet others feel that those who would doubt the profitability of kiddy games are missing the big picture. Cartoon dolls, dress up games, and virtual pets are simply a way of building community, and with communities come strong brand loyalty. The main source of income for these sites is advertising revenue, derived from banner or text ads users click on while they’re chatting or playing.

“We’ve considered selling premium memberships, but ultimately we feel that users are turned off by the idea of spending money,” Bailyn says. “Our extensive reach, especially with such a difficult-to-catch audience, is enough to attract big advertisers. After all, if you’re looking to sell to girls between the ages of 6 and 14, there aren’t too many other places you can go.”

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Evan Bailyn
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