Commentary

Companies Learn To Choose Virtual Worlds Carefully

It's been a while since my half of the Gaming Insider touched on virtual worlds, so we're due. While Second Life's marketing clout is getting trashed in every-new media, technology and marketing publication out there, Disney has bought a virtual world of its very own -- Club Penguin, with 700,000 registered users -- for $350 million. It's a good move for Disney: Club Penguin is profitable, and with its own virtual world, Disney can create and control an in-world experience far better than it could with Second Life or another third-party-owned world, and with a much better reach into its target demos.

While some marketers flounder in Second Life with deserted islands and low visitor counts, companies like Disney and MTVN have a more reasonable approach to virtual worlds -- get your own. MTV has turned three of its major entertainment properties -- "Laguna Beach," "The Hills," and "Pimp My Ride" -- into virtual worlds, and Nickelodeon, its corporate cousin, has followed suit with a few virtual worlds of its own.

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So, what's the difference between buying a piece of Second Life for a brand presence and buying a world of one's own? After all, marketers in Second Life can have their own islands, design and construct their own buildings and content, plan their own events, and, in all, have a great degree of freedom to create an experience around their brand. In fact, the virtual worlds that MTV has created for its entertainment properties could likely have been built in Second Life with relative ease, so why bother with the labor of developing not one but three distinct worlds, as MTV did, or the expense of buying one, as Disney has?

In my mind, one of the biggest problems is culture. Second Life has an existing culture that brands have to contend with when creating their own experiences, and that culture is very difficult for brands to jive with. A perfect example of this culture is the Second Life Liberation Army, a group of Second Lifers seriously bent on destroying corporate in-world outposts. Another great example is Second Life's focus on adult-oriented entertainment, anathema to most brands.

These problems don't exist in a world developed in-house, since a brand can control the growth and development of its user base. Such elements are also easier to deal with in a purchased world -- -- a company can pick a world that suits its brand, as Disney has done.

But pitfalls still remain. Disney has to be careful not to make drastic changes to its world too soon, or introduce features that are too far removed from what made Club Penguin popular in the first place. If the company doesn't keep to these standards, it could easily face a similar issue with its user base that brands already face in Second Life.

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