Virtual World Users To Marketers: It's The Activities, Stupid

Between six and eight million Americans will try at least one virtual world this year--the problem is that they think brands and marketers are too stupid to reach them. That's according to panelists at the "Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: Today and The Future" panel at the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York on Thursday.

For example, a recent study by German digital marketing research and services firm Komjuniti found that more than 70% of Second Life residents were disappointed with the activities and promotions that real-world companies had tried in-world thus far. And 40% of them considered those efforts to be one-offs that weren't likely to last. "Smarter advertisers have stayed and learned to tap into the residents' talents," said Jack Myers, president of Myers Publishing. "They've learned how to use virtual worlds as a way to develop relationships and go beyond the experimental stage."

Marketers who want to capitalize on this steadily growing market need to do more than just create a branded presence--they need to develop activities like games, fund-raisers, design contests and other events that residents can get involved in. In fact, new research from Parks Associates found that on average, almost 40% of virtual world participants said that their primary reason for going in-world was to play games. In contrast, less than a quarter said that their main goal was to satisfy curiosity or to socialize with others.

"We don't believe that the initial levels of curiosity are sustainable, and users aren't content to just be in a world and chat with other people," said Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, director of gaming and broadband at Parks Associates. "Developers and advertisers need to organize those kinds of activities that can engage and sustain interest. That's why we're glad to see more companies with content joining the industry--like the deal that Paramount announced to port movie clips into"

Cai spoke of Paramount Pictures' new partnership with Makena Technologies' that will allow residents to use clips from famous movies like Clueless during conversation or to express emotions in-world. Using Paramount's VooZoo application, residents can purchase a one-liner like the classic "Whatever!" from the movie, and a scene from the movie will play in a video window above their avatar. Each VooZoo clip costs about a dollar in-world.

Meanwhile, for toy brands like Mattel, operating within virtual worlds is becoming less of an option and more of a necessity. Kids ages 10 and younger have flocked to 2D virtual platforms like Barbie Girls (which has amassed about 10 million registered users) and Nickelodeon's Neopets (with roughly 45 million), and the parent companies have found that the worlds help bridge the gap between just selling products and giving kids actual positive experiences with their brand.

"It's essentially become the second step in a two-step marketing process with Mattel," said Joey Seiler, editor of the first step being to launch new product, and the virtual world connection following shortly after. "With this younger demo, we expect to see continued participation of real world companies--primarily toy brands--in virtual worlds," Seiler said.

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