Have you heard of a virtual world  called Whyville?

SecondLife, Club Penguin (bought by Disney for $700 million if the owners hit their entire earn-out), There.com, Gaia, Barbie Girls, Webkinz… all of these I know.  And as a marketer, many of us have certainly looked at SecondLife in particular and said… do I have to?
 
But I somehow missed Whyville, even though it’s been around since 1999.  And more notable than its age  is its humility in the face of success:  the site has somewhere around 2.4 million active users age 8-15 (70% of whom are registered), and 60,000 new kids register each month.   As virtual worlds go, users can do all the standard things – you can chat with your friends, earn currency to buy stuff, etc. – but Whyville offers an amazing twist, a la Jerry Seinfeld’s wife hiding squash in chocolate chip cookies to get her kids to eat vegetables…

 Whyville members can play games that are actually educational – a strategy that the site’s COO calls “active brain advertising.”  Kids whose avatars don’t eat nutritionally might find their little fake selves’ faces pockmarked with scurvy; others had to clean up after the advertiser Penguin Books caused a devastating storm as part of a campaign for Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”

So what is this place??  Whyville’s “About Us” section says that it was founded “to apply over 20 years of research in education and cooperative learning to develop new web-based tools for education,” and the company works with partners such as Getty, NASA and the School Nutrition Association to create and deliver fun content that is also educational.  Increasingly, Whyville is finding its way into the classroom, providing the ultimate endorsement.

 The site does work with advertisers and paying sponsors, like Penguin and Virgin Records, but I was impressed to learn that it also surveys members before and several times after a campaign as to the effectiveness of the advertising, possible purchase intent and other factor.  That’s good for the advertisers and the site as it works to refine its programming and adhere to its mission.  To the extent it can, I hope that Whyville continues to stay about reproach:  a Toyota campaign caught some flak – not a lot, but such an obvious play to get kids to influence their parents’ purchase of a car could have taken a chink out of the site’s educational armor.
 
And that’s not worth the risk because this is a pretty amazing site.  Luckily, just because I missed it doesn’t mean others have:  Whyville won the 2006 iParenting award for being the best kids Web site and best on the Web for its safety features.   And to me all this spells opportunity:  for kids, their parents and teachers, advertisers… and maybe a buyer in the future?secondlifesecond-life

Most of my marketing friends have not had the experience of managing actual, living people as “brands.” What must that be like?

Do you remember when Tom Cruise fired longtime PR agent-to-the-stars Pat Kingsley, replaced her with his sister and proceeded to transform into a lunatic? Who can forget his assessment of psychiatry on Today or his couch-leaping action on Oprah? Of course, this means that Cruise had always been a nut and Kingsley had been earning her fee for a long, long time. And then there are the poor souls who manage Lindsey and Paris and Her and Him and…

Consider this. You are a marketer at P&G or Citibank. Things happen, sure, but you don’t have what must be a particular kind of fear that you will awake on any random morning to see your brand of paper towel or toothpaste humiliating itself at the Chateau Marmont, falling down in the street or driving drunk for the upteenth time without a license.  Since I began running sales and marketing for Time Warner’s DC Comics division, there hasn’t been a single night that I sat home, worrying that Superman was out with Catwoman, getting drunk and punching paparazzi.  (But that Green Lantern??  Don’t get me started!  I’m kidding) 

I thought of all this when right after my post on the wholesomeness of Disney’s High School Musical franchise the movies’ lead actress was forced to admit that a very nude photo of her on the Internet was indeed her in a “private” moment (I can’t bring myself to offer a link check out PerezHilton). Of course this is not Disney’s or her manager’s fault, and if Ms. Hudgens didn’t tell them they could not have known of the photo’s existence but what kind of antacid goes with this kind of moment? Oy.

So the next time you look at your lawn care product samples and long for excitement, imagine that you’ve changed careers and you’re happy. You and your product’s celebrity endorser, Clay Aiken, have worked so hard since his run on American Idol.  Sure, the constant questions about his personal life make it a little challenging to build him up as a teen girl heartthrob, but you just know that his huge talent will prevail. You lean over, give your Clay Aiken bobblehead doll one more tap on the head, and fall asleep.

Then you wake up and turn on the tv/open the newspaper/fire up the Internet. And at that very moment, Lawncare never. Looked. So. Good.

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A teaser for Steven Levitt’s “Freakonomics” blog in The New York Times today caught my eye: What do Freakonomics and “High School Musical” have in common? Levitt’s initial answer is that both efforts became surprise hits that had little reason for mainstream success.

[Sidebar: because he thought the movie was “shockingly awful,” Levitt ends with a bit of humor by hoping that his book and the Disney movie have actually nothing in common. That’s ok: Mr. Levitt is not a member of the target audience – his kids, however, are completely addicted.]

For you non-fans, High School Musical was a made-for-TV movie that debuted in January 2006 to an audience of 7.8 million viewers. It’s made about $100 million in DVD and soundtrack sales so far. HSM2 drew 17.2 million viewers on its first night last month, and the soundtrack is #1 on the Billboard chart. And if you really want to drive yourself crazy: IMDB claims the original soundtrack took five days to make…I wonder if the success of a franchise that is so innocent – that harkens back to a much more wholesome, optimistic time – seems remarkable to anyone else. The news and adult conversation today are replete with terrorism, recession, lead paint, political hopelessness and schadenfreude. My mother thinks we should move to Canada. What’s with all these happy, singing kids? Neil Howe and William Strauss, authors of the compelling book, Generations, and the new Millenials Rising, think they have the answer. Howe and Strauss show how today’s pre-teens and teens are distancing themselves from their parents and the recasting the very image of youth from downbeat to positive, altruistic and engaged. The evolution is most profound with younger kids, who are moving away from even older teens’ more violent and sexually-charged world. Over time, these 12-15 year olds will not only entirely recreate what it means to be young but could become our next “great generation,” a la Franklin D. Roosevelt, and bring society back to a more honorable time.

What does this mean for marketers? What product and service categories could take particular advantage of this phenomenal evolution, and how do we get from hip-hop here to a more fanciful future?