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

 

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