Since the advent of online advertising, advertising and marketing has made a dramatic shift from soliloquy to conversation. The one-way mirror of the focus group long ago lost its opaqueness for windshield clarity. Consumer control, be it real or imagined, is dictating the terms by which advertising and marketing is conducted.
This has been going on for years, and the tangible manifestations of it have been sometimes clumsy and blatant, yet mostly innocuous.
Advertising inviting audiences to become part of a conversation and have a brand experience has mostly been relegated to emails, two-way banners and some blogging. Or, it has taken the form of becoming part of the experience the audience is having with the content, as is the case with product placement.
Both of these approaches seek to make advertising part of an individual's ", aptly named because it is a forum for just that: a second life.
The MMORPG has been around for quite some time, but it has mostly remained the domain of freaks and geeks, with games like EverQuest, the World of Warcraft and -- my favorite -- Star Wars Galaxies.
But in recent months, MMORPGs like Second Life have attracted a lot of attention because they have started attracting a noticeable audience. They tend to be young, highly engaged, only slightly more male than female, and as an audience they are growing.
Because the phenomenon is catching headlines, it catches the attention of marketers who are going to start asking their agencies to plan for these kinds of opportunities.
Just how do we do that, though? While MMORPGs are nothing new, using them as potential vehicles for commercial messaging is.
If you are going to plan for this...
The first thing to remember is this: just because you can do it doesn't mean you should.
While the audiences for such online gaming universes are highly desirable for certain marketers, it doesn't mean they are desirable for you.
Is the audience big enough? While the MMORPG has generated a lot of buzz recently that has driven growth, the audiences aren't huge. According to comScore, the number of uniques visiting Second Life is just under half-a-million, which is twice what the audience was before the news blitz that hit in November.
Are you influencing influencers? Yes, but what do they influence? There simply isn't enough data to know just what kind of things would most appeal to the audiences found in these places.
The space will be pretty huge, initially with an audience that is found at the nexus of microsimulation (e.g. The Sims) and RPG (e.g. the Everquest series). This, of course, depends on the kind of worlds being virtualized, however. Second Life is more realistic, a la The Sims, and Habbo Hotel is kind of more like Neopets, with a much younger audience than most marketers are looking for.
The commercial potential from an advertising perspective is good, but faces similar challenges as advergaming/in-game advertising: getting a handle on audience details (quantity, demographics) and the impact of the advertising in such a space.
It turned out to be a bust for the Sims Online, but that's because it was handled so ham-handedly: Dell computers were not allowed to break down; McDonald's was sold from a clumsy-looking kiosk-- the advertisers participating didn't allow themselves to be represented in a way that was authentic and acceptable to the players.
The other challenge is one that is older, the same as what faces blogs and faced chat earlier: marketers' lack of control over the environment.
Bold advertisers who realize that their days of controlling consumers are behind them -- and that the days of partnering with their consumers are in front of them -- will find MMORPGs to be powerful environments.