It seems you're never too young for virtual worlds and social networking, at least that's what Barry Diller's InterActiveCorp thinks.
In a room filled with cupcakes and cotton candy, the company launched its new Web site for "tweens" on Tuesday on ABC's Good Morning America set in Times Square. The site, which is targeted specifically at the age group of 6- to 12-year-old girls, allows users to dress up avatars, decorate virtual bedrooms, and shop in virtual malls.
It's called ZwinkyCuties.com, and is a spin-off of IAC's teen Web site for kids 13 years old and older called Zwinky.com, a two-year old Web site the company says has more than 16 million registered users globally and 6 million unique visitors per month.
The launch of the new Web site is one of the first since IAC split itself into five different publicly traded businesses in August to focus its Web properties and to compete more aggressively online. It's clear from the Zwinky Cuties launch that the company is gunning for another big media company, Disney. Zwinky Cuties will compete head to head with Disney's Club Penguin, another virtual world Web site designed for kids in a similar age range.
John Park, president and CEO of IAC's consumer applications and portals division, said the tween site was a natural progression. The company decided to launch Zwinky Cuties after it received thousands of requests to join Zwinky.com from girls too young to register for the older site. So the group decided to create a site for younger girls that provided more security and was tailored to younger interests.
"Zwinky Cuties is all about providing young girls with a place to express themselves in a safe environment," he said.
Of course it's also a place where young girls can wander around the mall or travel the world spending fake Zwinky bucks, which they earn playing games on the site. Zwinky bucks buy girls outfits and accessories for their avatar and virtual pets.
At least one mother who reviewed the site said she doesn't have a problem with the virtual shopping.
"It's a good tool that I can use to teach her about money and the value of things," said Lynette Young, who blogs for the mommy site NewJerseyMomsBlog.com. "She has to earn virtual money and save up for things. And when she has spent it, then she has start over."
IAC isn't the only company to see value in the 6- to 12-year-old demographic. Last year Disney bought Club Penguin for about $350 million. Toy brands have also targeted this age group with online virtual worlds too. Big brands, such as Barbie and Bratz, have launched their own virtual Web sites. And companies, like Webkinz, have built their retail model around a virtual world for their toys.
Even though media companies and retailers are targeting this group, it doesn't appear that advertisers are all that interested in them. Unlike the original Zwinky site, Zwinky Cuties will not show advertising. Its young users will be able to access some of the basic features of the site for free, but to get to more virtual boutiques and to access more robust content, parents will have to pony up a $5.95 monthly subscription fee.
"There isn't much demand from advertisers to reach this younger audience," Park said. "Maybe that will change eventually. It's not like there are any barriers to offering advertising on the site."