Poupeegirl brings chic twist to business of social networking

by Kazuaki Nagata

Popular social networking sites like MySpace, Facebook and Mixi face a young, chic challenger. Poupeegirl is trying to steal the hearts of fashion-conscious young women, both in Japan and abroad.

Poupeegirl has drawn about 500,000 registered users since its launch in February 2007, 98 percent of whom are women.

The service has also caught the attention of fashion-related companies, including cosmetics maker Kose Corp. and famous luxury brands like Louis Vuitton and Coach as a cost-effective way of marketing their products.

Yoshimi Morinaga, CEO of Poupeegirl Inc., which is wholly owned by Tokyo-based CyberAgent Inc., said Poupeegirl, with its sharp focus on women interested in fashion, differs from other social networking sites. Some 80 percent of its members are in their teens or 20s

“In general, people use (networking sites) to share information about themselves using journals, photos and movies to show what kind of a person they are,” Morinaga said in an interview with The Japan Times last month.

But Poupeegirl members use the site to share information about fashion. One way they do that is by dressing up their avatars and uploading their own fashion items for others to see.

Once registered, users get an avatar, a cartoon representation of themselves. The avatar, or “poupee” (“doll” in French), can then be dressed up.

The avatar is a major selling point for the site, which was designed specifically so that “fashion-oriented female users would find cute when they first look at it,” said Morinaga.

Dress-up options include tops, pants, skirts, accessories and makeup. Users can also change avatars’ eyes, facial contours and mouth.

There are currently about 5,000 items that can purchased at virtual shops with virtual currency called “ribbons” and “jewels.”

Users earn ribbons for commenting on other users’ pictures, for example, while jewels are purchased by credit card, a major source of revenue of for the company.

They can also trade items by posting photos of their own fashion items on the site.

The photos can be seen on the user’s Web page, and others can leave comments.

Morinaga said that although uploading pictures may seem like a bother at first, offering rewards in the form of items for their avatars gives users an incentive to participate more actively.

The uploaded photos are categorized by brand and can be viewed on the site’s Fashion Dictionary, which provides information about each fashion brand.

According to Poupeegirl, more than 15 million pictures have been uploaded so far.

At present, about 35 percent of the site’s registered users are overseas, an impressive figure for a Japanese social network. By contrast, as of last June only 3.1 percent of Mixi’s 17.4 million users were located overseas.

Morinaga said the site has drawn more overseas users than she expected. The U.S. has the largest number, followed by Central America and China.

The company recently started to collaborate with Twitter and Facebook, enabling users to post their avatars’ fashions there in an effort to pull in more overseas users, Morinaga said.

Poupeegirl has enticed top fashion names Louis Vuitton and Coach to collaborate and set up virtual boutiques on the site, introducing new products as items for avatars.

According to a company survey following one promotion, 52 percent said seeing a virtual item made them want to purchase the real thing.

Tokyo-based Kose ran a promotion for its Happy Bath Day line of bath and cosmetic products from August 2008 to last March by creating an original character for Poupeegirl.

“Because Poupeegirl’s users are women interested in fashion, whom we also target, we wanted to appeal to them,” said Kose spokeswoman Minako Hata.

The character Barami, which comes from “bara” (“rose”) wrote a blog about Kose products and the company offered items for avatars for sale online.

“Familiarity is very important for a brand,” said Hata, adding that the company was able to convey its brand image through Poupeegirl.

Poupeegirl is now looking beyond the online world. It is coming out with a game for the Nintendo DS hand-held game player in December in which users can play dress-up with avatars as they do on the Web site.

Morinaga said the company hopes to have 1 million registered users by the next-September end of the fiscal year.

“We hope all women in the world have one poupee (avatar) as an expression of their fashion.”