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A Conversation with Cindy Rink of Purple Moon

Note from Nancy White (NW): Cindy Rink (CR) emailed me in August, 2000, with an amazing online community story. I was immediately struck by the both the power of the girl-driven Purple Moon community, and the lessons underlying the site's birth and development. Cindy graciously agreed to share her story as part of Full Circle's ever-growing "Hosts on Hosting" and online community Case Studies series. Cindy's story starts with her email to me, followed by our further conversations.

CR: I have been the Senior Editor of http://www.Purple-Moon.com since before its launch in 1997. I wanted to highlight our experience as another paradigm in community-building. Especially among an age group which frequently gets overlooked or met with puzzlement. From the girls' points of view, we seem to have struck a unique approach that brings them back again and again.

Under the (then) Directorship of Kristee Rosendahl, the web site was created as a transmedia extension of our brand and support for the CD-ROM games , which were considered the dominant branch of the brand. Over the next couple of years, it became clear that the web site matched and then surpassed some of the goals Purple Moon set out for girls 8-12: collaboration, collecting, community and fan culture. It started to topple our business model, dominating the software side, which flagged a little, and lighting a fan culture fire, which swept all of us by surprise! What was envisioned as a modest extension became its own entity. Thousands of girls flocked to it.

Purple Moon lost ground as a start-up and was ultimately purchased by Mattel little over a year ago. I stayed with the brand, as did our lead illustrator. We went from a team of 9 to 3 -- a writer/editor, artist and programmer. In the aftermath of over-acquisition, Mattel dropped all efforts around the brand in early 2000 except for the web site. E-commerce had already been stripped off, so the site was non-revenue generating. No extra money beyond salaries was invested in updating the site's technology or feature sets. And yet....

We have grown to over 800,000 registered users, and are adding 400-500 a day. 14 million hits a month and 355,000 page views a day. With just a team of three! The community we foster has grown chiefly through grass-roots efforts, word of mouth, despite a total lack of marketing or advertising support, or even any in-the-world products!

What drives this vibrant community? I believe we can look back at those initial visions instilled by Purple Moon, Brenda Laurel and Kristee Rosendahl. We implemented them through a rich cast of characters that girls form fan cultures around, plus:

  • collectible virtual "treasures" which are contextual and can be exchanged with other girls;
  • a closed postcard system for attaching treasures and communicating;
  • a personal page maker and friend finder;
  • an online newspaper.

Girls have extended these features themselves in a variety of ways, including the formation of treasure swap meets, personal fan sites, and clubs built upon hobbies, birth signs, PM characters, trading, etc. To my knowledge, there is no other narrative-driven web site out there succeeding purple-moon.com.

NW: You say the web site was created as a transmedia extension of brand and support for the CD-ROM games. How did this manifest on the website?

CR: Purple Moon's marketing strategy was to go across all forms of media: software, web, books, TV, merchandise, to approach the brand from all areas. There were three "big ideas"for the web site:

  • Backstory: The transmedia approach gave girls multi-faceted access to the world of our characters. We had such a wide cast of characters, each with rich background bios. The website was to act as a receptacle for backstory...widening the view, as it were. The CD-ROMs basically took you through Rockett's (PMs flagship character) whole eighth grade year at Whistling Pines Junior High. It did it in chunks, from her first day there through different events such as Halloween, the school dance, etc. The web site was able to produce "tween time" stories that fell in between these CD-ROM periods. We figured girls would want to learn more about the school and the characters.
  • Fan Culture: The development of a fan culture was always part of the plan. We knew girls liked to collaborate and form communities. What we didn't expect was that it would grow so big, so fast.
  • Collectibles & Trading: Kristee Rosendahl had long been fascinated by the development and application of "virtual objects" in multimedia projects. She worked at Apple's Multimedia Lab before Purple Moon and prototyped things like virtual bead collections. So it was natural for her to transfer that knowledge to the idea of collectibles on the Purple Moon site. We called them treasures.

NW: Tell me more about the treasures. What made them so special?

CR: I have seen these ideas mimicked on other sites -- but the big difference is that ours are CONTEXTUAL. They have meaning for our audience because they BELONG to various characters. Each treasure has a text-based "treasure card" which explains the relevance of the treasure.

Beyond these special character-related treasures, we also offered objects girls just like: animals, jewelry, sports, camp, greeting cards (poem-based valentines, holiday treasures, Halloween treasures, etc.). Many of these have a secondary attachment to a character --a set of horses that belong to the stable Nicole uses, for example.

The girls use treasures to align themselves to characters, their hobbies, families, pets, school cliques, personalities, etc. They also use them to convey their own interests or to acknowledge the interests of other girls by sending them to friends via a postcard.

NW: I can see the handwriting on the wall. When did you realize it was turning into a community?

CR: One little mistake we made early on -- silly us! -- was to give the girls direct postcard access to the characters themselves. We put a "write me!" button on every character's personal page. Girls could write Rockett, Ruben or Sharla and get a reply in their mailbox. This was almost an

afterthought on our part. We should have expected that girls would respond to these cartoon "celebrities" just like they do to the Backstreet Boys or Brittany Spears! While the girls would like to believe our characters are "real" people, it doesn't seem to be a primary concern. They just want to contact whoever/whatever that celebrity is and get a personal response.

We were flooded. We ended up using other internal staff and then hiring temps to come in and respond to emails from girls. They found that they could barely get one fired off to a girl when she would respond and ask another question...which they could see arrive in the character's mailbox. (We didn't and don't have chat yet because it requires extensive monitoring and the site doesn't have the resources. Also because parents considered it unsafe for their young daughters to have access to live chat.)

We had to train and oversee all these people to respond within the character's particular personality, and to know everything they could about a character so they would be accurate and consistent. They had to use different styles of speaking. It was a logistical nightmare. For a start-up, we didn't have the budget to cover all these editorial assistants. So we ended up stripping out the buttons and not letting girls write the characters anymore. Rockett still sends an automatic greeting to every girl who registers. And I still get complaints from girls who want to know why they can't write her and the others back.

NW: Why did the site work as an extension, or even new product line, for Purple Moon?

You wrote me that it "started to topple the biz model." Did you have a hard time finding the biz model for the web community? Have you found one? Can you articulate the value to your company?

CR: The site was initially considered non-revenue generating. It was intended as a brand community, a fan culture site. But when we saw the response, we started to think about adding e-commerce to the site. That happened in the fall of 1998, a year after launch. Kristee, as Director of Merchandising, took a novel approach to this, too. She wanted to supply more than the typical logo merchandise and CD-ROMs for girls. She wanted to extend the concept of collectible objects into real merchandise. Contextual items like Rockett's jewelry box or Jessie's stuffed dolphin toy or Sharla's purse. We searched to find objects that could fit these categories, even if they were third party and not branded PM. Further than that, we offered girls virtual objects to buy -- special treasure sets that couldn't be found anywhere else on the site -- and special features for their personal pages that other girls didn't have.

I think in time this would have led to a club subscription model. We wanted to expand our personalization features for girls. Multiple personal pages based on their interests, for example. "Printables" and "downloadables" that made them members of certain Whistling Pines school cliques. A character-maker which allowed them to create representations of themselves on their personal pages.

This was driven by the realization that what girls wanted desperately was to cross over into the world of Whistling Pines. They wanted to BE on of those characters, in that world, with those friends. Everything they did on the site was connected to that desire....and still is.

Unfortunately, the Purple Moon Store was closed when Mattel acquired us, replaced by links to their own e-commerce sites, which had a more traditional approach. So the contextual items never had a chance to really prove themselves. The store was only open a short time...

NW: How did it feel to give your users and customers "control" to help the site evolve? What did you have to do to make this work from the company/staff point of view?

CR: To compensate girls for the loss of character postcards, we created Rockett Talk, a non-real time message board. I review user submissions and, depending on the character hosting the board, respond to the girls as that persona. Because I can only put so many messages up there, it is only a partial solution.

We always wanted to give girls the ability to participate in the brand. So activities like Storyteller allow girls to write what they think should happen in a character dilemma situation. Voting lets girls impact what characters will do, wear, look like, etc. "The Whistler" (online newspaper) encourages girls to submit stories, poems, notices, character gossip, etc. to be published under their name. Periodically, I ask for poems or recipes from girls and turn them into a treasure trove. Our artist illustrates and animates them and they get posted in "Goodies & Games" just like our own PM treasures. Getting their name up on the RT board, in the paper or on a treasure is a mark of prestige. More than that, it gives many of them a personal response from a character -- and it puts them in "that world."

But it's a funnel that dwindles down to a pinhole at my end. I get thousands of messages for these features. I can't start to deal with them all. New features in the future could change this.

NW: As a side note, What is it like writing/creating for the girls?

CR: We expected it to be a lot like writing for a soap opera -- and it is. There are so many details about each character, just like real people...and anyone involved in creating anything in this brand needs to reference those details or risk making a mistake. For example, a CD-ROM made last year included Rockett inside her house. We saw its exterior and zoomed into her bedroom. That was a huge deal, but the new developers and producers on the project didn't know it. They didn't think about the fact that Rockett comes from an inventor father and a collage-artist mother, and has a college sister and little brother. That they have an income level and lifestyle that would not match a huge, squeaky clean suburban house with yellow walls and red trim. They didn't know to consider eccentricities unique to her family. And now it's cast in stone and girls know what her house looks like and we're stuck with it. The fans will remember, they always do. Content does matter -- a lot.

NW: You wrote how "girls extended" parts of the website. Tell me more about that.

CR: Okay, the big thing on PM is treasures. We noticed that girls started to classify the treasures by their age or availability -- as much or even more than their visual aesthetics. They started calling them "classic treasures" or "antique treasures." This has evolved into the term "rares."

When the PM Store closed down, I decided to make the store's treasure sets available free of charge to the girls. So I created the Rare Treasure Page. Every two weeks, these treasures rotate. Girls love this page. I have started off with the store treasures...and moved on to treasures that are

older, so new girls get a chance at them.

I started to hear of treasure swaps and clubs being created on the site by groups of girls. That inspired me to create the Knot Hole, a classified page in The Whistler, where girls could advertise their own clubs. It is very popular, I can't start to publish all the ads I get. Girls form clubs around

hobbies, birth signs, bands, characters, animals, causes, personal advice, and of course -- treasures.

Girls have also created fan sites on their own. Some are general ones, where girls from PM can just get together and do girl stuff, like chat about boys, music, problems, etc., is another. Since we've launched, the web has made it really easy for girls to get and build their own free web pages. Enterprising PM girls have used these forums -- and their own non-PM email addresses -- to facilitate what our site can't yet do. They broadcast one to many and they post their lists of treasures for other girls to see.

They include prices for these treasures...i.e., a rare might cost a girl 2 or 3 more common treasures. Buyers are encouraged to contact the seller via email or PM postcards. Oh, and by the way, girls have multiple accounts on PM. Since they can only have 25 treasures in their collection page per account...well, they create multiple accounts to collect more treasures. Then they tell buyers which screen name/account they need to transact business with! One girl has her rares divided up on her web site by "vaults." Different vaults belong to different screen names.

We also intercepted user submissions where girls claimed to be able to "get all the treasures they want, even rares." We discovered that -- because of the numerical way in which treasures are listed -- some girls were hacking into the site and collecting treasures, sometimes even before they went live! They couldn't really get into our database system, but they could type in a URL that would take them to the treasure card. From there, they could collect or send it. Fortunately, our database allows us to make a treasure unavailable. So now, although girls can preview an unposted treasure, they can't collect it until it goes live.

Responding to the treasure frenzy has prompted us to think of more and more ways to deliver new and rare treasures. One ways is to offer "finite" treasures, where only the first X number of girls playing a game can get a specific reward treasure.

We're just amazed and gratified by this level of involvement and ingenuity.

NW:If you were starting today, what would you do different? The same?

CR: Well, I mentioned some of the features we want to put in...like a character maker, multiple personal pages, etc. A gallery space for displaying girl's works. Hosted chat forums. A more traditional email service, to replace postcards, so girls wouldn't have to go offsite to conduct treasure business....We didn't anticipate the millions of postcards girls would send to each other, and it's a bit clunky.

Our site has remained stable and robust most of the time, and it's based on a proprietary back end. However, if I were starting over I would build in a lot more flexibility and scalability. It's like that old saying about never being too rich or too thin... you can never have enough scalability or feature flexibility, I think! Once again, we just had no idea we would end up here -- and so fast. We now have over 800,000 users and should reach a million before the year's out. Even knowing girls do create multiple accounts, that's impressive. 400-500 new users each day ain't all repeat business!

There's been a lot of talk about a treasure-maker, to let girls create and display their own treasures. The only stipulation on this would be monitoring staff, because we have to be careful about what gets built. We don't want any inappropriate treasures or texts...it may mean confining them to pre-created elements, and would that be as interesting for them? I have found in the newspaper that sometimes girls prefer our editorial to stories from other girls....because there's an authenticity about PM created narrative. I think a little of that would apply to treasures as well...but I also think girls would revel in being able to create and share their own works, so the gallery space is the real key to it. Same goes for the Flash-based mad libs poetry and stories we've added to the site. They love them, and they can print the finished screen.... but if girls could display their poems on-site, that would be choice...

We've considered a contest that would allow the winners to put their faces on Purple Moon Place, our main page. It would be an illustration of themselves done in our style, by our artist. And it would link to their own personal pages. That would satisfy that "crossing over" desire.

Personalization, creativity, collecting, communicating, friendship...these are the hot spots for girls and as long as we design for those, we'll probably be on target.

One other thing I wanted to mention. Our product line was targeted to girls 8-12. We figured our characters were all about 13 and that girls would see them as aspirational or peers. But for some reason, the web site attracted the upper end of that spectrum, expanding into a lot of 13 and 14 year old girls. We think it may be that the writing and communicating girls do on the site lends itself to older girls. We get girls from all over the world, too.

And we get boys. Sorry, but we do. Girls have a fit about this, because they cherish the concept that our products and web site are "for girls." They want that privacy and freedom. They are always squealing about and on boys that they catch on the site. Since we have a Safety Alert button which allows girls to reach Customer Support in case of problems, our users will tattle on boys when they catch them

In fact, our users police the site for a lot of reasons, and they do it well. Although we monitor screen names and have a bad word filter, some things still slip by occasionally. Users are very clever these days! Girls are the first to push the button and let us know. Complaints can end in the

offender receiving "three strikes and you're out" and being locked off the site. Girls don't like "cybering" (being "hit upon") or boys. They know chain letters are taboo, and they don't like obscenities. They want to keep their site on the up and up -- and to themselves. Which is just what we want, too.

NW: Thanks, Cindy. This is a great story with lots of lessons for all of us community builders and online facilitators!


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