New to the Neighborhood

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Build-A-Bear Workshop has created a vibrant and imaginative interactive city—Build-A-Bearville—that takes not only social networking and customization to the next level, but also the Build-A-Bear brand. Think MySpace meets Second Life, for kids.

Children create their own avatar—selecting the color of everything from skin to hair to clothing—and walk through the different neighborhoods, such as the Town Square, Bear University and the Furbulous Fashion District, playing games and chatting with others. All Build-A-Bearville residents receive a Cub Condo, which they can paint, decorate and invite over other guests. By participating in games and quests, town citizens can earn Bear Bills, the town currency, to buy virtual clothing and goods for their condo.

Since more than 53 million stuffed animals have been made at Build-A-Bear Workshops in North America and the United Kingdom in the past 10 years, the company wanted to further extend a child’s relationship with their furry friend, by making it come to life.

“We have seen over the past few years a blurring from traditional play to online play for children,” said Dave Finnegan, the company’s CIO. “It’s clear that social networking is here to stay, so it’s important for us to get involved.”

“We wanted to embrace a platform that would act like a MySpace for kids, in that they can decorate their condos and express themselves in any way they chose,” Finnegan added.

Buildabearville.com , launched on Dec. 11, boasts nearly 400,000 citizens since its debut. The site is expected to reach 1 million unique monthly visitors at the beginning of this month.

“We were in a good position to enter this space because our store presence is known for being interactive with customization options. Extending the reach of our brand in this manner was an easy decision for us,” Finnegan said.

Birth certificates for stuffed-animal friends made in stores since October include an ID and free key code that guests can use to bring these products to life. For those animals purchased before October, children can receive a complimentary guest pass to register their furry companions online.

Although some of the site games and features range in difficulty, Finnegan said the company ran tests to make sure the content wasn’t over the heads of its users.

“What’s amazing is that kids get technology like this much better than many adults do,” Finnegan said. “What we learned, though, is that kids rarely read instructions. They will try something and if they don’t get it, then they will go back and read the directions.”

Although avatars can chat amongst themselves, the company also aims to ensure site safety. When a child signs up at buildabearville.com , parents receive an e-mail inviting them to select and control communication options based on age and comfort level. Build-A-Bear also monitors the site for safe socialization.

In addition to expanding the site with more interactive features, Finnegan said that the company plans to further bridge the gap between the in-store and online experience.

“We want to connect those two worlds as much as possible,” Finnegan said. “When snowy weather hit parts of the country in December, it snowed in Build-A-Bearville, too. We plan to do more integration like this, and with store events, in the future.”

For example, when the company celebrates Spring Break in its stores, so will Build-A-Bearville. And in April, games and other activities will stress the importance of taking care of the environment, culminating with an online Earth Day celebration.

Build-A-Bearville is planning a few surprises later this year. Last year, CEO Maxine Clark made an in-world guest appearance and handed out exclusive virtual prizes, such as fuzzy-bear slippers, for all avatars who befriended her.

In the future, the company hopes to experiment with video capabilities. “We also want to incorporate the site more with our loyalty programs in the next three to six months. There’s still a lot out there for us—and for them—to explore.”

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