Since at least Aristotle (and perhaps before that) we have recognized that humans are social animals. Humans need interaction and a sense of belonging to survive. According to Wikipedia, "Like most primates, humans are by nature social. However, humans are particularly adept at utilizing systems of communication for self-expression and the exchange of ideas. Humans create complex social structures..."
And yet, advertising -- which has been around for quite some time -- has been largely unable to exploit this fundamental attribute related to our species.
The internet has made (and will continue to make) a marked and lasting impact on the advertising landscape. Yet, as has always been the case with any fundamentally new technology, first use of the internet has mostly involved a simple transfer of the "old way" to the "new way." Take advertising, for example. While nearly every other internet marketing article extols the new opportunity, the majority of advertising dollars today go to banner ads, which are little more than animated newspaper copy.
Moreover, the recent era of advertising has been dominated by placements in passive media, all of which are fundamentally asocial. Print, radio, television and the "ordinary" internet are set up to enable an advertiser to have its message consumed one person at a time. The user interaction is one-on-media. Generally, the advertising is not created, nor consumed, with nearly as much social consideration in mind.
So, what then is the appropriate form for marketing on the internet? Certainly, that form needs to take advantage of the fact that the internet is fundamentally not a passive, asocial broadcast medium. But who doesn't think that internet marketing will eventually be more interactive?
What we would like to suggest is that the enormous marketing opportunity on the internet does not derive from the fact that users can interact with servers, but rather that users can interact with other users. What the recent buzz over specific social networking sites has essentially overlooked is that the internet is itself a social network reflecting the fact that we are fundamentally social animals. The question then becomes, how can advertising tap into this fundamentally new social networking structure?
Enter virtual worlds.
Virtual worlds not only represent the ultimate evolution of social networking on the internet, they also represent a powerful new opportunity for the advertising community. However, realizing this opportunity requires the invention of a new form of marketing-- one fundamentally linked to human social behavior.
With virtual worlds, the bulk of the utility users derive from this medium is by interacting with each other. The communication is synchronous (think real world), not asynchronous (think email, bulletin boards, blogs, ordinary web and social networks). In virtual worlds, the technological interactivity plays second fiddle to the social interactivity.
Said another way, you and I don't care if we are reading a newspaper at the same time or logged onto CNN.com at the same time… it neither enriches nor diminishes the experience. It is an asocial medium, for better or worse.
Not so with virtual worlds.
This is good, very good news for advertisers. For the first time, a medium exists that has the wherewithal for users to socially interact while they are being advertised to.
Consider how sponsors from NASA and the John Paul Getty Trust to Toyota and Disney have promoted their "products" in Whyville.net, a leading "edu-tainment" virtual world for boys and girls. A number of sponsored destinations and activities exist inside the virtual world where kids can go together to learn about the advertiser's message.
Interested in art education, the J.P. Getty Trust opened a virtual Getty museum in Whyville where kids explore art work in groups, react to the art with each other as they see it. Disney's "The Little Mermaid" was another example. With this sponsorship, kids were able to purchase a mermaid tail, which empowered them to go scuba diving with their friends in a special sea cave. Oh, and to make this all happen, the kids got together to sing lyrics from the hit song "Under the Sea."
Nearly every sponsored activity in Whyville involves experiences where kids are interacting with the advertiser in a social setting.
Of those advertisers that have stuck a toe in these waters, they all are reporting fabulous results (and doing even more of it). Scion, for example, started with an extremely social program in Whyville involving a night club for kids to hang out in, the ability to drive their friends around in "carvatars" they design, and virtual owners' events, and has now extended the program into Second Life to reach an older audience.
There are certainly a number of interesting dimensions to this relatively new medium, but perhaps most profound is the virtual world's unique capacity to engage humans in a fundamentally social manner. That's good news for our species!
Jay Goss is COO at Numedeon Inc. .