Virtual World Marketers Called To Add To Community

Much like the real world, effective virtual advertising must be creative and engaging, according to virtual world enthusiasts and marketers who gathered Wednesday at the inaugural Virtual Worlds Conference at the Museum of Jewish Heritage in New York City.

"The ones [marketers] that have been really successful are the ones who have gotten involved in the community, and invested in the community," said Jeska Dzwigalski, a community developer at Linden Lab, which runs the popular virtual world Second Life.

"Add to the community," is Dzwigalski's advice for marketers looking to make a virtual impact. "Figure out something playful."

Marketers and media outlets in attendance included MTV Networks' MTV and Nickelodeon brands, AOL, Pontiac, Leo Burnett, Sundance Channel, and IBM.

"The point that's been made over and over again is that these worlds are seriously engaging," said Linda Zimmer, president and CEO of the consultancy firm MarCom:interactive. "The other point is that you (the marketer) have to engage, too."

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"Ease of use is the most important thing in virtual worlds," said Teemu Huuhtanen, president North America and executive vice president of business development for Sulake Corp., which runs a teen-based virtual world named Habbo.

Habbo generated roughly $51 million in revenue last year--partly through marketing deals with the likes of MTV, Coke, Disney, Procter & Gamble, Puma, and Sony PlayStation.

A point of contention between some virtual enthusiasts and marketers is how closely avatars represent their makers and vice versa.

"Are you selling to the avatar or the person behind the avatar," asked Betsy Book, director of product management at Makena Technologies, which runs a shopping-centric social network named There.com. "Our mission is to extend their [users'] real social lives with virtual worlds."

Makena Technologies has also worked on several projects with MTV such as Virtual Laguna Beach, which first appeared online in 2005 a year after the "Laguna Beach" reality show first aired on MTV.

"From MTV Networks' Virtual Laguna Beach and Virtual Hills to Nickelodeon's Nicktropolis, Viacom is helping define the next-generation media platforms," said Christopher Sherman, executive director of the Virtual Worlds Conference.

MarCom:interactive's Zimmer discussed new research, based on four focus groups, that finds 49% of users in Second Life had a generally positive outlook on virtual marketing. That compares to 19% of users who expressed a negative outlook and 34% who remained neutral on the subject.

But like much of the data coming out of virtual worlds these days, MarCom:interactive's research is sharply contrasted by a new study from German agency Komjuniti. The survey of 200 Second Life users found that 72% expressed disappointment with virtual marketing, while a mere 7% said it had a positive influence on brand image.

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