June 19th, 2011
Kids Flock to Social Nets, but Few Advertisers Dare to Follow
Kid’s social networks are a boom business—in every way but advertising.
Online playgrounds with colorful names such as Everloop and Togetherville aren’t only popular with small fry, but also investors. Everloop just raised $3.1 million and Togetherville was acquired by Walt Disney Co. earlier this year for an undisclosed sum. Moshi Monsters, a 3-year-old kids’ social-gaming network, has already raked in $100 million this year, but not one dime of it was from advertisers.
“Believe me, we get asked to incorporate branding and advertising all the time,” said Rebecca Newton, chief community and safety officer at Moshi Monsters, which expects to have 70 to 80 million members in 200 countries by the end of this year. “But it’s complicated. When kids tell their friends they just had a mocha latte at Starbucks, they don’t understand that now Starbucks has their name and knows that they went to a Starbucks in Des Moines on Third Street on Thursday and had a mocha latte and they start getting coupons for 20 mocha lattes.”
It’s not just kids’ understanding of advertising that’s a lightning rod of controversy for social networks, which mainly rely on virtual and real goods and subscription business models. It’s the public perception of how advertising affects kids. Besides law enforcement and the government watching over anyone working with kids online, pediatricians are getting in on the act. A March report by the American Academy of Pediatrics suggests doctors ask kids how much time they spend online and warn parents and children about social media including kids’ obsession with popularity and status, sleep deprivation, social anxiety, depression, bullying—and interactions with advertising.
Companies such as Togetherville are also aware of the difficulties Facebook has been having despite the fact that its rules specify no one under 13 can sign up. At least four lawsuits have been filed nationwide—all hoping to go class action—against Facebook’s use of kids’ images in their social ads. A big part of Facebook’s advertising strategy is to turn user “likes” into ads that show the user’s name and image. A recent Consumer Reports survey found that as many as 7.5 million Facebook users in the U.S. are under 13, despite its user policies. An additional 14.4 million are between the ages of 13 and 17, younger than the age of legal consent in most states. And Facebook has no controls in place to prevent a child under 13 from lying about his age to join the site.
Cognizant of the mess exposing kids to advertising can create, 50-million-member strong Moshi Monsters avoids it altogether. Ms. Newton, who is very passionate on the topic, said exposing kids to sophisticated advertising techniques isn’t fair. “It’s exploitative on a high level—getting information from a kid who doesn’t know what they’re doing.”
Instead of working with brands, Moshi decided to become a brand in its own right. The company just announced an exclusive line of plush toys and figurines with Toys ‘R Us. In fact, most of Moshi Monsters’ $200 million-plus revenue comes from the offline sale of toys, cards and magazines, with every piece of merchandise driving kids back to the site with a code embedded on the item. Moshi Monsters also makes money when members upgrade to the paid membership, earning $8 a month per member. Additional revenue comes from virtual currency called “Rox.” Games are “short-play optimized,” meaning that after 15 minutes, the rate at which players earn Rox diminishes, encouraging children to do homework or play with friends instead.