Growing With Your Audience: A Content Marketing Lesson From Neopets

neopetsThis fall will mark the 14th anniversary of popular children’s virtual pet website Conceived as simply a way to keep “university students entertained,” the site has grown exponentially, both in terms of content and overall users of the site. Let’s talk about how Neopets has remained relevant, and just how the site keeps users hooked – often for years at a time.

Humble Beginnings

A couple of university students had the idea, and launched the original in the fall of 1999 – Adam Powell wrote the programming, and Donna Williams drew the creatures. Powell and Williams planned to create something entertaining and hoped that it would generate a little bit of revenue through banner advertising. What the site became was something else entirely.

As the site evolved and its user base grew, there began to be a lot more recognition. By 2004, Neopets had launched a premium version, where users could pay a yearly fee for access to special perks on the site. The use of immersive advertising was also a source of revenue. Viacom, a media conglomerate that also owns MTV, Nickelodeon, BET, Comedy Central, and a number of other media sites and networks purchased the site in 2005 and implemented “NeoCash” two years later. Exclusive, often limited edition virtual items could be bought for real dollars – and that’s where Neopets leaves us today.

What Keeps People Hooked?

The answer to that question is a lot of things, but there is definitely a reason for the existence of hundreds of millions of virtual pets on the website, and it is largely the existence of the site’s well-built internal economy. The boiled down version is this: users play games to earn points, and then they can spend those points on their pets. The “Neopian” economy, however, is enormous. Users can run their own virtual shops, and there is even a virtual stock market.

While the site’s visuals are clearly intended for children, Neopets is big on constant new content. Site events parallel real-world events like the World Cup, where users can play a flash-game version of soccer (“Yooyuball”). For add-ons to the site’s events, users are required to pay real-world money so they can participate in extra games and earn extra items.

A lot of teens and even adults come back to continue to participate in site events like these. Many events and certain site games require strategy that the older crowd definitely has a leg up on. Additionally, many parents and educators, surprisingly enough, like Neopets because of its potential educational purposes – its micro version of the economy means that kids learn about things like supply and demand and the aforementioned stock market.

Recipe for Business Success?

It’s not hard to deduce that it comes down to a simple formula that could teach any business a few lessons: they update often, and they also ask for feedback and give people what they want in result – even with major changes to the site’s infrastructure. Content is current for adults and also kid-friendly. Somehow, Neopets has found the right formula.

What tips can your business take from Neopets’ formula for success?

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Tree is a somewhat nomadic graduate student pursuing an MFA in Poetry and Literary Translation from Drew University. A self-identified “diplobrat,” she spent over 16 years living as an expat in countries like Guatemala, Bolivia, and Tanzania. Tree graduated from Smith College in 2012 with a degree in Spanish Language and Literature, a minor in Studio Art, and a concentration in Landscape Studies. In between writing poetry for school and content for CEM, she dabbles in goat herding and freelancing. Other interests include reading, watercolor painting, gardening, and traveling.

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