Superstar Lesley Mansford and Nick Rush: Pogo keeps loyalists coming back for more

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Given the ups and downs of its story, online gaming site Pogo.com couldn't be more aptly named.

Formerly pay-to-play venture Total Entertainment Network, the company was rescued from near bankruptcy through its makeover as a free, ad-supported gaming site.

Making money on the Internet may have proved tough for dot-coms, but 17 million registered users have spoken. Game-playing on the Net is fun, and Pogo.com has found a winning formula. And that in itself makes Pogo.com an entertainment marketing star.

Those loyal players of online parlor games-interestingly, more women than men-are carving out a new form of entertainment.

MORE WOMEN ON BOARD

Attracted to a venue that's part amusement, part chat, they have grown in numbers as the word gets out. Of Pogo members, 55% are female, and 70% are between ages 18 and 49.

Viral and partner marketing have allowed Pogo to build its user base with little marketing expense. VP-Marketing Lesley Mansford has run a program heavy on promotion and charitable tie-ins, such as a fall and winter registration campaign with ads in USA Weekend, in which Pogo donated money to charity for every new registration, ultimately giving $50,000 to the Starlight Foundation. The ads were created in-house.

All those women playing games on the Web offer Ms. Mansford an intriguing audience.

Indeed, "The Internet makes hanging out and socializing with friends, relatives and significant others fun and easy, and free, familiar games are one of the best online environments for such activity," she said last month when Pogo was running such Valentine's Day-related games as Virtual Date.

"Offering games and contests with romantic elements at this time of year is a logical extension of that."

In February, Pogo and its database were snapped up for an estimated $42 million by Electronic Arts. The gaming company wants to convert some of the registered users into paying subscribers.

`A LOT GOT NOTHING'

Pogo has bucked some daunting odds, says Miguel Iribarren, analyst with Wedbush Morgan Securities. "A lot of people are getting nothing, so [Pogo] did all right."

Part of Pogo's attraction is "stickiness," or length of user visits, Mr. Iribarren says. By the reckoning of Jupiter Media Metrix, Pogo ranked as the Web's "stickiest" site of 2000, with users spending an average of 175.8 minutes per month playing games and viewing ads.

Visitor minutes were particularly important to Electronic Arts, Mr. Iribarren says, because the company's goal is to trade up users of Pogo's free games to pay monthly subscription fees for EA's games, whose users normally play 15 to 20 hours monthly.

Of course, little is certain on the Web these days, including stickiness. Media Metrix rival netScore, a division of comScore Networks, won't estimate user minutes for Pogo, citing such performance-enhancing devices as automatic screen refreshers and pop-ups that can inflate stickiness measures. Pogo's chief rivals, Flipside.com and Uproar.com, registered 51 and 41 minutes per user per month respectively, according to netScore.

IN SOLID COMPANY

Pogo's own reckoning gives it 30 million visitor hours monthly, ranking it fourth on the Web in total user hours, behind only Yahoo!, AOL Time Warner's America Online and Microsoft Corp.'s MSN service, says Garth Chouteau, Pogo director of communications.

Key to making Pogo sticky has been combining games that are easy to learn with a sense of community, he says.

While Pogo and its online entertainment competitors all offer games, prizes and chat, Pogo has gone further to incorporate chat into games, making chat rooms part of the window users see as they play.

Encouraging users to socialize is crucial to the entertainment site, because members have been some of Pogo's chief word-of-mouth proponents. For referring new members, current ones get tokens, the same currency they earn playing games, which are redeemable for entry into drawings for cash and prizes.

Distribution partners have been the other key to Pogo's growth, Mr. Chouteau says, with Pogo serving as exclusive games supplier for such portals as Excite and Iwon.

Most of Pogo's games are online versions of such public domain standbys as poker, solitaire or bingo.

While sites such as Uproar license rights for online versions of "Family Feud" derivatives, Pogo developed its most popular game internally through Nick Rush, VP-content programming. The former TV scriptwriter-"Dukes of Hazzard," for instance, is on his resume-also created the flying toaster screen-saver and online version of "You Don't Know Jack" for Berkeley Systems.

THE OMNIPRESENT POPPIT

Mr. Rush developed Pogo's Poppit, a simple yet addictive balloon popping game that by itself accounts for 6 million user hours a month and ranks as the most popular mass-market game on the Web, according to Mr. Chouteau.

"It's very much a Middle America audience we've tapped into," Mr. Chouteau says. "One of the pleasant surprises is that women love to play these games on the Internet, and that's something that wasn't true [of online gaming] two or three years ago."

Pogo's fan base and ad revenue haven't slumped along with other dot-coms because it never relied on media outlays, Mr. Chouteau says. "We have leveled out and haven't grown that revenue as much as we would like or projected," he says. "But as opposed to a lot of our competition and other sites that are ad supported, I think we've done very, very well."

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