Experiment, But Know What You Want To Get From Virtual Worlds

A recurring theme at this week's Virtual Worlds Conference in Manhattan was the idea of targeted experimentation--or the notion that marketers can only profit from virtual world investments after they have established well-defined goals.

"If you don't know who you're targeting, or what outcomes you're after, don't do it," said Randal Moss, the Manager of Futuring and Innovation-Based Strategies for the American Cancer Society's Futuring and Innovation Center.

Through worlds like Second Life, Moss appears to be meeting--if not exceeding--his organization's goals, which include raising cancer awareness, education, and fund-raising.

Indeed, one fund-raising effort--a volunteer-driven virtual walk-a-thon named Second Life Relay For Life--has seen yearly revenue jump from about $5,000 in 2005 to over $41,000 last year, while Moss is expecting to raise $75,000 for the American Cancer Society this year.

"Focus, focus, and focus," was the advice from Roger Holzberg, vice president and creative director of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online. "There's no other way to reach tweens today except online, so the decision was easy for us."

Holzberg is busy creating closed virtual Disney Worlds online so young people can establish and/or maintain connections with Disney whether they're near a park or not.

But along with setting goals, agencies are asking for better ways to measure things like ROI, engagement, and frequency.

"What is the value of someone spending an hour in my virtual world?" asked Joel Greenberg, a senior planner at GSD&M. "That's not an answer we're going to figure out on our own; it will take the whole industry to figure that out."

According to Greenberg at least, we are heading full speed toward online worlds that combine two-dimensional and three-dimensional experiences. "I think we're going to see a [Web] where everything exists together," he said.

One untapped opportunity screaming for targeted experimentation is the idea of taking e-commerce from a two-dimensional to a three-dimensional world, according to Paul Hemp, senior editor at the Harvard Business Review.

"The idea of virtual shopping is an under-discussed, untapped opportunity," said Hemp. "As we're increasingly able to replicate the real shopping experience [virtually], we'll see people shopping together, window shopping, and enjoying the activity of shopping together."

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