As a medium, virtual worlds have come of age. The buzz around these online communities just keeps intensifying and the number of men, women and children spending considerable amounts of time living through their avatars (or virtual personalities) is asking for the advertising community to take notice of the innovative marketing opportunities these platforms afford.
The first question I would like to raise is, given virtual worlds' popularity, why is this medium not being more widely tapped by marketers?
Mostly this is because of a lack of general understanding about what virtual worlds are, and critically, how the medium is different from ordinary websites.
A virtual world is a simulated, immersive environment presented via the internet in which participants perceive themselves as interactive parts and typically generate persistent site content. Grasping the full potential of the medium requires a large investment of time compared to other media (print, radio, television or even the ordinary internet).
To understand the inner workings of a specific virtual world, one must immerse oneself in that world, not unlike moving to a new town and meeting the neighbors, figuring out the opening time of the local grocery shop, the address of a plumber and who in the community would be a good tennis partner. In most cases, a virtual world is an incredibly rich, social environment, where people interact and 'chat' as they would in real life minus the physical boundaries-- with the added dimension of fantasy where the imagination is the limit. The scene is set for marketing campaigns that can be more innovative and interactive than ever before. It's worth the investment of time.
What are some of the other considerations related to advertising in virtual worlds?
Let's take a quick look back on the evolution of online advertising. It started with websites monetizing eyeballs through banner ads. Then somebody figured out that engaged eyeballs were more valuable than regular eyeballs, but we still put the same banner ads in front of those engaged eyeballs. After that we smartened up and made the banner ads themselves more engaging. I can still remember the first time I putted the golf ball on an Orbitz.com banner. But from a contextual standpoint, we were still missing the boat (or hole). Orbitz is not Callaway.
Now, with virtual worlds, which host the most engaged of all eyeballs, we can insert a contextually correct, interactive advertisement in the form of a place or activity (or both) for the consumer to experience. The advertisement -- when done well -- becomes part of the virtual world. Think TV/film product placement, only interactive instead of passive. You don't see James Bond drive the BMW for eight seconds in the 007 flick, rather you are driving the BMW through your virtual world. Simply put, there is only so much one can do with one-directional, inherently passive advertising. If the goal is to actually induce meaningful learning about a product, service or brand, an interactive experience can accomplish this much more efficiently.
When advertising within a virtual world, the golden rule is to remember that the medium is fundamentally social. Users are above all there to interact with each other instantly and without the notion of geographical boundaries. Finally, you have a medium that can exploit this when you design your marketing program effectively.
Users generally create content, so let them do so around your product or brand. In Whyville (a virtual world for kids), users are able to visit a Scion dealership (called Club Scion) and purchase a "carvatar" -- a virtual Scion xB -- for clams, the virtual currency of Whyville. The users can customize their virtual xB by selecting from a variety of real world and fantastical exterior colors and accessories. They can even rent space in a bumper sticker factory, and design their own bumper stickers to add a special personal touch to their vehicles. Of course, in the end, the product is essentially a user-generated ad that is virtually and proudly driven around the Whyville world in order to establish status and make social connections with other users, who in turn develop the desire to own their own Scions for the same purposes.
The measurability of a virtual world campaign is also intrinsically improved. You still get all of the statistical usual suspects (clicks, uniques, page views, et cetera), but as important, you can actually watch your customers and prospective customers interact with your brand via their avatars. In a real-time way, Scion can observe how Whyville's users are experiencing the Scion campaign inside the virtual world. This data can even be used to fine-tune the campaign on the fly.
A final dimension to consider is that when compared to traditional in-game advertising, development time is much shorter. Most virtual worlds are organic, so you are inserting your product/brand into an existing game, vs. working with game developers months in advance to make sure you are integrated into their next release. This also means your advertising budget stretches further, as you aren't on the hook for all of the infrastructure that you would need to develop to make the game meaningful. Again, using the Scion example, the virtual world economy and currency already existed in Whyville, so Scion only needed to be concerned with the experience surrounding purchasing and configuring the Scion xB, not everything else that went along with it.
Creative Showcase: Jay Goss is COO at Numedeon Inc. .