The line that divides virtual realms and the natural world is disappearing. The combination of robust virtual-world commerce and a growing overlap of virtual worlds and the real world brings opportunities for creative real-world marketers.
So far, there are few instances of real-world products sold in virtual worlds to users for delivery to their real-world addresses. There have been some interesting brand-building experiments, though.
The BBC recently broadcast a section of its Newsnight program from within the Second Life virtual world, perhaps the most technologically advanced of these environments. Many of its residents import real-world company logos as props or decorations. Coke machines are a common feature. You can get a Corona beer at a Second Life bar while listening to the hum of a neon Budweiser sign hanging on the wall. Evian was advertised at a concession stand for a recent U2 tribute concert. An iPod store sells virtual music players loaded with tunes audible when an avatar wears one of the devices. A store called Pear sells a laptop capable of sending emails to the real world and bears a fruit-shaped logo reminiscent of Apple.
In the Sims Online, McDonald’s has installed virtual fast-food kiosks, complete with automated employees who work at the counter, able to serve up virtual burgers and fries to residents making selections from the clickable menu. Intel incorporated its logo into screens of the virtual computers that help Sims Online residents improve their game skills. In another virtual world, There, Levi Strauss promoted a new style of jeans, offering virtual versions for sale to avatars (in the currency “ThereBucks”) at a premium to the generic virtual jeans that avatars could otherwise purchase.
Organizations have sponsored several branded events in virtual worlds. Kellogg’s, for example, sponsored a competition in Habbo Hotel where residents were asked to decorate their personal rooms in pop-tart–related themes. The winner received a room filled with various rare in-game Habbo items, for instance, a DJ deck or a beehive-shaped lamp that users can’t buy in the Habbo furnishings catalog. The American Cancer Society staged a “Relay for Life” event in Second Life where avatars walked a virtual course, lit virtual luminaries, and raised virtual cash (converted to over $5,000 in real money and donated to the organization).
Obviously, there is a real danger that product placement in virtual worlds will feel like three-dimensional spam to residents. To be effective, virtual world marketing needs to be consistent with the environment and enhance the participants’ experience. A brand should be integrated into the daily routines of its potential customers so that they can interact with it in a meaningful way.
In Coca-Cola’s Coke Studios world, nearly everything from the furniture to the vending machines that dispense virtual cans of Coke are branded with the company’s red and white colors. The platform claims 8 million registered users, with players spending an average of 40 minutes on the free site.
Selling To Avatars
Advertising has always targeted a powerful consumer alter ego – the hip, attractive, incredibly popular person waiting to emerge with the help of an advertised product. Within virtual worlds, consumers are taking the initiative in adopting alter egos that are anything but under wraps, so marketers can segment, reach, and influence them directly. It is important for companies to think about more than the potentially rich market of the virtual world, though, and consider the potential customer—the avatar.
Avatars certainly are useful subjects for market research. Marketing depends on soliciting people’s dreams, and in virtual worlds, those dreams are on overt display. For instance, a company can track how inhabitants of a virtual world interact with a particular type of product, noting the choices they make about wardrobe mix, product features, or even virtual vacation destinations. And avatars might also be enlisted to play a marketing role, where they could use their virtual-world sensibility to design various products with real-world potential.
The amount of purchasing and marketing data that could potentially be mined is staggering. The avatar’s digital nature means that every one of its moves, such as perusing products in a store and discussing them with friends, can be tracked and logged into a database. This behavioral information, which is organized by individual avatars, aside from being priceless in the long term, could be processed immediately. An avatar sales clerk might appear from behind the counter and offer to answer a customer’s questions, which would already be known because of information gathered and recorded in the database.
An avatar clerk might automatically adjust their behavior to become more appealing to avatar customers. Research carried out at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab found that users are more strongly influenced by those who mimic their own avatar’s movements and mirror their appearance. This virtual manifestation of a classic sales trick may make avatars potentially, if insidiously, powerful salespeople. The avatar sales clerk is able to subtly and automatically tailor their behavior—their facial features, their gait, or the way they turn their head—to the buyer’s, making the clerk seem more interesting, friendly, honest, and persuasive.
Digital technology allows avatar sellers to change their appearance and behavior to simultaneously mimic different gestures and looks of hundreds of avatars in the same room.
As the line between virtual worlds and real life fades, so does the barrier between virtual worlds and all cyberspace. New technology allows a group of avatars to roam the internet. Appearing as a superimposed image on a web page, the group can make purchases if they feel like it and then zoom off as a group to other websites. Instead of seeking out avatars in virtual worlds, marketers may instead find ways of attracting avatars to their e-commerce sites.
Challenges And Risks
This new marketing landscape and audience comes with all kinds of pitfalls, including technology constraints. Stagecoach Island moved from the technology platform that Second Life is built on to the platform underlying Active Worlds. Second Life’s platform required too much computer hardware capability for users, according to certain reports.
It is important to realize that each virtual world has a different culture and that people come to these worlds for many different reasons, so a single marketing approach doesn’t work. Privacy concerns over the detailed tracking of avatar data also pose obvious challenges.
This clearly is virtually unexplored marketing territory. But conceiving of avatars as a new set of potential customers who can be analyzed and segmented provides a useful way of thinking about new marketing opportunities.