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How your brand can click with a tough audience

How your brand can click with a tough audience Lauren Bigelow

The market for virtual goods is exploding as teens continue to shape a new marketplace that delivers both real- and virtual-world experiences. Charles River Ventures recently estimated that consumers are spending more than $1.5 billion a year on virtual goods worldwide. Pair that with powerful teen spending demographics -- eMarketer estimates teen spending will reach $208.7 billion in 2011, up from $189.7 billion in 2006, for instance -- and you've got a trend marketers can't ignore.

The economy may be struggling, but teens don't seem to be feeling the pinch. A recent survey of more than 4,000 teenage users of the WeeWorld social network found that despite the declining economic forecasts, more than half of teens claim to have the same or higher allowance than before, while only 11 percent noted that they are getting less allowance now than in the past. There is no better time to be a teen marketer.

Traditionally teens -- and all of their spending power -- have been tough to reach. Today they are flocking to virtual worlds and social networks to do what teens do best: evolve their identities, socialize, and express themselves creatively. The visual nature of virtual worlds allows for a type of expression never before possible.

When our survey asked the reason teens have an avatar and why they would pay for a virtual item, the No. 1 reason was "fun." To be more specific, more than 75 percent like having an avatar simply "because it is fun." Overall, teens gravitated toward "anything fun" as the things worth their money online, but girls are also much more interested in spending money online to express themselves and their passions (24 percent) than boys (17 percent).

So do marketers fit into these booming virtual economies where the focus is totally on fun? Yes, in fact they fit extremely well for two key reasons. First, brands are key components of the way teens develop identities, express themselves, and collect visual equity they can leverage. Teens are naturally inquisitive, and creative and branded goods are just more raw material for that creativity. In fact, brands are so important to teens that they ask virtual goods providers for them every day. Teens love to choose brands they identify with, and they proudly display them on their avatars, showing them off to their friends, expressing their preferences, and showcasing their style all at once.

Second, teens love virtual goods from marketers because they are free. Keep in mind that teens have to either earn or purchase virtual currencies to buy the virtual goods they desire. Everyone -- even those with big virtual bank accounts -- hungers for free items.

So when a marketer offers a compelling set of free and fun items as part of an advertising campaign, not only do teens respond positively, but studies have shown significant increases in aided and unaided brand recall, brand favorability, and purchase intent. The items are seen as virtual gifts directly from the brands, and the brands benefit from the added mindshare and positive sentiment.

So what are some examples of brands providing fun for teens in virtual worlds? Well, that changes all the time. Today, it might be a branded animated skateboard and the coolest mobile phone, tomorrow it's a coveted gift or a shampoo offering special hairstyles, and maybe the next day it's a TV for a virtual room that runs a movie trailer. Teens are constantly seeking novel ways to entertain themselves.

The good news is that while the definition of fun may change every day, the rules of an effective virtual world marketing campaign do not. Based on continuous daily feedback from WeeWorld users, our recent survey, and experience helping brands get it right, there is a core set of rules to keep in mind when harnessing the power of teen virtual environments for your marketing initiatives:   

  1. Give them things they want in the context of your brand. Don't just slap a logo on something -- remember that for every branded item they adopt, they become a viral brand ambassador. The items they want include things to wear, decorations for their rooms, gifts for their friends, elements of events or games, and limited edition items.

  2. Bring the fun. Work in partnership with the virtual world to inject playfulness and self-expression into the mix. It's not as hard as it sounds.

  3. Integrate it into community behavior/activity, like prom season, end-of-school or beach parties, political debates, environmental issues, etc. Leverage interactive elements such as scavenger hunts, quests, and virtual events to increase the engagement with your brand.

The users themselves are in control in new media environments like virtual worlds. That changes the game when it comes to advertising and marketing, but it doesn't mean the job of reaching them is harder. It's actually far easier than you may think if you work with the virtual world to figure out what works best with its audience.

Young teens like those on WeeWorld are in the midst of defining themselves. If brands and marketers do it right, they reap the benefit of having their brand become part of an important formative experience as teens develop their core identity -- and have fun doing so.

Lauren Bigelow is general manager at WeeWorld.

On Twitter? Follow iMedia Connection at @iMediaTweet.

Lauren Bigelow, General Manager and Senior Vice President, Marketing of WeeWorld, has extensive experience pioneering interactive media companies that push online content, self-expression and marketing to the next level. From mobile and Web-based...

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to leave comments.

Commenter: Lauren Bigelow

2009, July 16

Michael this is an important point you raise.. in our offering the advertiser branded virtual goods are not provided in perpetuity. They are available only for the length of the campaign. Once the campaign is over the branded good cannot be selected anymore. If the branded good is a gift, then you can no longer send that gift. If the branded good is something to wear like a hat then that hat disappears as a selection, but anyone already wearing the hat can keep it until they change their clothes. Similarly if it's something that can appear next to your avatar like a skateboard or in your room as a decoration, then it's no longer available. It's common for the users to actually petition to get the branded item to be put back as a selection! This really showcases how different these campaigns are from display ad campaigns. How often do users petition to get a display ad back on a site?

Commenter: Michael Bellavia

2009, July 15

Curious if the advertiser branded virtual goods being offered live in the user inventory in perpetuity. The interesting thing with virtual worlds as with many online advertising and promotional campaigns, they have a shelf life that extends beyond the bounds of a traditional set campaign. So if say the messaging around a Burger King related item might feature the King himself initially is there any issue a Burger King needs to consider when their messaging switches towards a value proposition yet their prior goods still emphasize the prior messaging?

Commenter: Lauren Bigelow

2009, July 14

Thanks Leslie..I appreciate your comments. Events are great.. we're having a beach event today and the best thing about a virtual world is it's guaranteed not to rain. Events make the interactions with a brand memorable as you say..and the virtual goods can tie in along the way from getting 'dressed' for the event to what you do once you get there. In one case the virtual good might help them express their identity, in the other it might help them in their gameplay. It's interesting to sort out what fuels the adoption of virtual goods.

Commenter: Leslie Cawley

2009, July 13

You are on target when saying that you have to feed the need and curiosity of the teenage, Ms. Bigelow. They want trendy, cool, and they it now and not yesterday. And tying the product in with a particular event such as Prom or even back to school or end of school is a great idea and a way to keep the brand fresh and intheir minds the next time they want to make a purchase. Fantastic suggestions.