Nope, these aren't lost lines from "Jabberwocky," they're words from NeoPets, a free interactive Web site where visitors can create online pets, play games, buy and sell imaginary items their pets need, exchange messages with other NeoPets enthusiasts-and spend loads of time exploring advertiser-driven features. "It's as complex as the real world," says Rik Kinney, 49, NeoPets exec VP.
Launched in November 1999 as a just-for-fun site by two British university students, NeoPets was a word of mouth wonder. "Even with no business plan behind it, it was incredibly sticky," Mr. Kinney says of the site's ability attract and keep users camped at NeoPets. In April 2000, Dohring Co. acquired the site. "We thought it had a foundation for something very, very big," says Mr. Kinney.
The site's growth hasn't slowed down. He says 28,000 new accounts are activated daily and, overall, about 30 million people have signed up with the site. By the way, NeoPets has never run an ad campaign. "When you're doing 28,000 activated accounts per day, how much more do you really want?" asks Mr. Kinney. Other surprises: NeoPets doesn't just appeal to kids, tweens and teens: 21% are 18-plus.
With all those attentive eyeballs, marketer executives knew advertisers would be interested in getting involved but wanted to ensure they didn't offend their very active and vocal audience or skew the site too much to one age group. Along with traditional banner ads, Mr. Kinney and Lee Borth, 41, chief operating officer, decided to offer an "immersive advertising" program so that marketers could build their own areas within the NeoPets world.
Mr. Borth says immersive advertising works because it differs from what young people are used to seeing and is integrated in a natural way. Because users have the choice, they "are more engaged with the product or service being promoted." All marketer-driven areas are labeled as advertising. Recent immersive advertising programs include a game for Vivendi Universal's "Robots"; the General Mills Cereal Adventure section-including a game to "celebrate" the launch of Chocolate Lucky Charms; and the McDonald's Shop (where you can see a penguin-like Bruce creature chomp a burger).
"We like to think of NeoPets as a creator of properties, like Disney," says Mr. Kinney.