A Whole New World? Try 50.

The land of make-believe is now charging admission. Okay, not exactly. But judging from what was discussed at this year’s Virtual Worlds conference, which took place April 3-4 at the Javits Center in New York, this isn’t too far off. Many would agree it was only a matter of time before someone thought to fuse kids’ imaginations with a tangible prefab online universe. And now that they have, it seems no one can stop.

Over the next two years kids’ worlds are expected to dominate growth in this booming space with over 50 virtual worlds set to launch. The keynotes from insiders at current virtual overlords Mattel, MTV, Whyville and Neopets reflected the collective anticipation at what’s to come. Expressing both excitement and caution, Jack Myers, President, Myers Publishing, LLC, made the point, “Virtual worlds are the media of the future, and we need to build with new models, platforms and metrics.”

Metrics continue to be a hot topic, as advertisers and marketers try to figure out how to both count up and capitalize on the millions of engaged eyeballs. At the moment, the easiest (and most widely used) audience metric is registered users, and as a general rule about 25% of registered users are frequent participants. Meyers added the caveat, however, that measuring users’ emotional connections, focusing on the quality of their engagement — not just size — and measuring “in world” perception are all still important factors. Size-wise Neopets, the oldest virtual world of the bunch, currently reigns supreme with 45 million registered users. Stardoll has 15.7 million registered users with 30-35k new users/day (44% in the US, 46% in the EU, and a growing Asian market). Barbie Girls (introduced only last year) has already jumped to 10 million registered users, quickly gaining on Club Penguin (purchased by Disney last year) with over 12 million registered users and 700,000 paid subscribers. And Webkinz, the Ganz owned property that has sold over 2.5 million plush dolls, has converted those sales into an audience of over 1 million highly active registered users.

Publishers are starting to take notice – both looking to partner with existing worlds, and create worlds of their own based on new and established properties. Now with a toe in this space via ’39 Clues’ and their recent online/offline Goosebumps re-launch, Scholastic, for one, had numerous staffers floating around. And, Wendy Louie, New Media Marketing Manager at Random House Children’s, sat on a panel about reaching teens in virtual hangouts. “I see publishing houses investing more of their marketing dollars into new innovative outlets and less so in traditional vehicles,” Louie said. “With companies’ interest in the eyeball and stickiness factor, I expect sites to really ramp up their content to stay ahead of the game.”

Some other key take-aways:
  • Nickelodeon’s online world Nicktropolis has 7 millions registered users, and 86% of Nick audiences say gaming is the key experience.
  • There are 350 million avatars worldwide
  • In South Korea, 90% of kids are in virtual worlds
  • There is a huge growth in branded virtual worlds creating a “curated experience” for users- vMTV (MTV’s network of virtual worlds including Virtual Hills, Virtual Laguna Beach, Virtual VMAs) has 1.25 M regular users, with 4,500 new users/daily, and 15,000 viewer clubs with as many as 2,000 members a piece
  • Kids are constantly jumping around and between virtual worlds – an incredible amount (up to 60%) of vMTV traffic is coming from Gaia, for example

*Image from KZero