The nearly three million teens who visit Gaia Online monthly have an opportunity to purchase, personalize and drag race Scion tC and Scion xD for the Gaia Gold on a newly revamped rally track with cool looks and fun obstacles like cows and spaceships. Scion's first campaign on Gaia launched in June 2007. In the first hour, the site sold more than 28,000 Scions, which grew to more than 600,000 in the first six months.
Now back for more, Scion--the self-proclaimed edgy new kid on the block--introduced a contest last week, giving Gaia members an opportunity to design virtual accessories for their cars. The contest is promoted in Gaia's community newsletter and on the campaign launch page. The winning accessory, which the two companies will announce March 6, will sell as a custom aftermarket Scion part.
Although none of the virtual designs have been manufactured as physical objects and sold as accessories for real-world cars, Scion keeps a close eye on entries for "products of interest," says Adrian Si, Scion interactive marketing manager. "If there's anything designed that we can create realistically, I try and pass on that information to our engineering department."
Customized Scion accessories have become hot commodities in Gaia's virtual marketplace where members buy, sell or trade items to get rich in Gaia Gold. In the first year, 611,552 users customized a Scion xB on Gaia. Those cars were raced in millions of drag races in the custom Scion rally game. About 126,300 of those personalized Scions appeared in millions of postings in Gaia's forums.
Gaia caters to mostly teens and tweens. Sometimes the company turns down business from prospective advertisers when the products are inappropriate for kids. Last year Gaia declined business from three companies: one focused on fashion and two on entertainment. Unwilling to provide the name of the companies, Gaia CEO Craig Sherman did admit the largest of the three deals was worth $500,000.
Experts say if it works, virtual worlds are a great way to test market appeal. "Toyota set up the division Scion to appeal to younger car buyers, so they took more advertising and marketing to the Internet, which has been successful," says David Healy, an analyst at equity firm Burnham Securities.
Asked if virtual worlds have replaced focus groups, Healy replies, "I wouldn't be surprised. Focus groups got a bad rap over the years because they tell the manufacturers what they want to hear, rather than reality. The manufacturers took the information and developed some disastrous models."
Those who join virtual worlds tend to be young trendsetters that Scion pegs as males, ages 18 to 34, and narrowing that down occasionally to reach 18- to-24-year-olds. "Who's buying the car, and [who's] racing them on virtual worlds aren't necessarily the same," says Si. "We're targeting a specific group with the realization the owner may be a slightly different demographic."
Si says more males than females purchase Scions--52%--and the average owner is 29 years old. About 60% of the buyers are under 35. Alia Harlan bought a Scion in 2007 for the low monthly payments and high gas mileage.
The 32-year-old owner of Allegria Dance Theatre in Whittier, Calif. didn't research the car in a virtual world, but did go to the Scion Web site to pick out custom accessories, such as an iPod plug-in, floor lights and spoiler. "I needed to get rid of the big car I was driving and simplify my life," she says.