Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Anastasia's "Valley of the Virtual Dolls"

Anastasia Goodstein, of YPulse fame, has written a new article for BusinessWeek exploring the growing popularity of virtual doll sites among girls and teens. Contrasting startups like Stardoll, GirlSense and Gaia Online with newer entries by established children's brands, like BarbieGirls, Disney Fairies (a site I've been researching since February with my 8-year-old sister) and, Goodstein offers a good introduction of the commercial/marketing dimensions of these sites. She writes:

[M]ost important for the business-minded, the sites create a space for building a brand and advertising a product. Most offer some sort of virtual currency, whether it's Trollz "Trollars" or Gaia "Gold," to buy virtual goods, often distributed as a reward or incentive for participation. Some of them also sell virtual items for real money. According to the blog Tech Crunch, Stardoll sells between 60,000 to 180,000 items a day. In addition to virtual goods, many of these sites want their users to buy real-world products. Mattel hopes to sell Barbie-inspired handheld music players to interact with the Barbie Girls site. Gaia Online sells all manner of physical garb.

For the startups and smaller brands, Goodstein explains, the strategy is to integrate ads and branding into the site, a form of advergame or "adverplay". She writes, "For established brands like Barbie, Trollz, and Disney, it's all about getting girls to convince their parents to go from virtual fun and games to real-world purchases. For the startup companies without strong brands or established products, the financial model is more about sponsorships and brand integration." Examples of the later include WeeWorld's Skittles campaign, and Gaia's The Last Mimzy in-game treasure hunt.

The sites themselves are attracting crowds. Tech Crunch reports monthly unique visitor rates in the millions for established sites like Stardoll (5.5 million) Gaia Online (2 million) and GirlSense (1 million). My own research into this area is only slowly starting (it'll be a low priority until I finish my comp readings), but I'm becoming increasingly intrigued by the popularity and significance of these sites within girls' online culture. With the focus on commercialization/marketing, potentially market research as well, I'm eager to apply some of the theories and discussion from my previous paper on MMOGs to virtual paper dolls as another (perhaps even more overt) instance of the commodification of digital play.

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