marketing to avatars

Each of this week’s three readings contained a statement that jumped out at me, though for different reasons.

In “Avatar-Based Marketing,” by Paul Hemp (Harvard Business Review, June 2006), it was this: “Clearly, many of Second Life’s 100,000 or so residents are highly involved with this place.”

That’s not a typo, my friends. He said 100,000.

Even assuming that the article was written and fact-checked some weeks prior to publication, this means that in 18 short months, Second Life has grown 100-fold, to its present 10 million plus registrants. Using the more conservative number of 1.2 million “active residents” today, that’s still more than a tenfold increase.

So since Hemp wrote, SL has grown 10 to 100 times in size (most likely somewhere in between). Whatever other analysis Hemp provides — and it seemed to be of the self-evident variety — is probably no longer operative: The early adopters he was looking at have been followed by the mainstream, and different marketing rules apply.

In “Marketing in Second Life doesn’t work — here’s why,” by Wagner James Au (GigaOM, April 2007), the line — actually a subheading — that caught my eye was “A Failure of Imagination.”

To me, this comes closer to the heart of the challenge of “marketing to avatars.” As Au puts it: “To play in Second Life, corporations must first come to a humbling realization: in the context of the fantastic, their brands as they exist in the real world are boring, banal, and unimaginative.”

The answer for marketers who want to get their messages across in Second Life is not to abandon the medium but to push it even further, such as the Nike example given in Hemp’s piece.

Another example I like to cite is that of Wired Magazine, which championed SL early as “the coolest place on the Web” and whose own SL offices are stylishly impressive. But like many other early entries (c.f. aloft Hotel), the Wired offices are often empty. (And Wired published one of a number of SL backlash stories this past summer, though it omitted any reference to its own failed experiment.)

I like the Wired example because it is clear: Only a “failure of imagination” can be the reason it failed. It can’t be for lack of money or resources; parent company Conde Nast has that in unrivaled abundance. Imagine what a few thousand Lindens offered in a weekly contest could do for buzz and traffic there; Wired’s HQ should be a vital hub of SL imagination, invention and activity.

“Selling to an Avatar,” by Deeeep Witte (SL Business, October 2006) seemed by far the most perceptive of these readings — it’s amazing what a little real-world (oops, I guess I mean virtual-world) experience can do for business analysis.

The case study of real-world PR agency Text100’s forays into Second Life was filled with matter-of-fact statements learned the hard way: “Text100 sees SL as the next generation of platforms beyond blogs. ‘We expect virtual worlds like Second Life to be an integral part of the digital lifestyle we see evolving….Second Life is particularly appealing because it’s a collective environment for all the tools that other social nextworks feature….’ ” (And they were saying that contemporaneously with Hemp, 18 months ago, before the MySpace/Facebook peak.)

Here you have a major player who “gets” the new platform and is enthusiastically embracing it, experimenting with it, and educating its clients about it — in other words, doing their job well. As SL grows to 20 million registrants and beyond, pioneering, imaginative companies like these will be delivering the ROI (Return on Imagination) of Second Life to real world businesses.

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