Marketers find a new place to set up shop: Virtual realityUSA Today
December 07, 2006
One of the hottest target audiences for advertisers today literally is from another world. It's the digital population of an Internet-based virtual reality game, Second Life.
Second Life, a 3-D world from Linden Lab, now has more than 1.8 million "residents," who are alter-ego characters created by the game's players. Users guide the characters — "avatars" in Internet parlance — through a land of computer-animated mountains, islands, stores and even tattoo parlors.
Second Life residents can socialize in their cybercommunity and "chat" with other characters via online messages. Players' characters explore the world and engage in activities such as going to concerts or parties. Second Life also has its own economy, allowing residents to shop or own property.
Users can pick a free membership or a paid one that has more privileges, such as owning land.
That intense level of interactivity has attracted a growing number of marketers to Second Life, founded in June 2003. Monday, Cisco opened a virtual headquarters that includes an animated amphitheater that the company will use to host digital demonstrations of how its products work.
The ability to engage consumers has great appeal, says Michael Nicholas, managing director of the marketing and media agency Carat Boston. His company helped Reebok set up a Second Life store for customizable sneakers.
Other companies, such as American Apparel and Starwood Hotels & Resorts Worldwide, have brought renditions of their real-life products to Second Life, as well as "built" storefronts and attractions there.
"We've seen an uptick in interest from big brands," says Linden Lab marketing head Catherine Smith.
About 5% of Second Life's total "world" now is occupied by big brand names, she says. The creeping commercialism shouldn't offend anyone, she says. Players can easily move from area to area, "so they don't have to see anything they don't want to see."
Also motivating advertisers: Second Life has attracted a tech-savvy user base with a net average age of 32. That's an audience increasingly hard to reach through traditional media such as TV.
Linden Lab's revenue does not come from selling ads. Instead it rents "land." Takers include both businesses and consumers.
A major presence of the kind a marketer would want is not cheap. For instance, the setup fee for a Second Life island is $1,675, and the rent is $295 a month. Software and creative costs to develop the plot can push the price tag to tens of thousands of dollars.
Some companies also make money selling virtual goods to the virtual consumers. The Second Life economy runs on Linden dollars.The premium, for-fee memberships give residents a weekly stipend of 300 Linden dollars that they can spend on virtual goods. Users who don't get the stipend — or just want more Linden dollars to spend — can buy more on the LindeX currency exchange using their real-life credit cards. Rates fluctuate, with a U.S. dollar now worth about 270 Linden dollars.
Who has set up shop there:
Pontiac, Nissan and Toyota.
On Nov. 22, Pontiac launched Motorati Island, where users can cruise in Solstice GXPs for which they've picked the color and extras, such as fancy rims. Downloads allow more extreme customization, such as turning them into tanks or adding an outside texture that looks like cotton candy. Nissan has a giant virtual vending machine that dispenses Sentras, while Toyota lets avatars drive customized Scions.
Adidas and Reebok.
The sibling brands sell sneakers at their Second Life stores, but a relationship, not sales, is the primary goal.
"We're trying to create time with our target consumer," says Carat's Nicholas.
Its store's goods range from digital T-shirts to swimsuits and underwear.
Its new Aloft hotel chain won't open until 2008, but Starwood started testing a virtual version of the concept in October.
"It's about 95% accurate to what you'd see in real life," says Brian McGuinness, Aloft vice president.
Ad agency GSD&M.
It built Idea City, which has rooms for "corporate" meetings, as well as leisure space, such as a basketball court. One area shows client logos, including MasterCard and Frito-Lay's Tostitos, and it will soon run streaming video of clients' ads, says senior planner Joel Greenberg.
GSD&M wouldn't disclose what it's spent, but planning director Rene Huey-Lipton says Second Life costs are "reasonable if you consider that you have access to more than a million people."
As in the real world, marketers have found that not everything goes according to plan.
Some residents have formed a "Second Life Liberation Army" that stages protests at high-profile areas to campaign for more voting rights regarding how Second Life is run. The incidents blocked access to the virtual Reebok and American Apparel stores.
Some residents also engage in risqué activities, such as cybersex. The tattoos shown at some virtual parlors can be a bit bawdy as well.
Second Life is "full of vices," says Erik Hauser, creative director of Swivel Media, which opened a virtual area for Wells Fargo offering money-management tips for young adults. It was protected by a private entrance that users could access only after they registered on a separate Wells Fargo site. Residents couldn't just show up as they can in most areas.
Yet the gated community also limited Wells Fargo's exposure to potential customers.
Web balancing act
It illustrates the trade-off marketers face as they seek to exploit the Internet's potential for consumer interaction: They have to be willing to give up some control.
"What's interesting and scary for advertisers is that Second Life is a living and breathing ecosystem, and to be successful within the space, you have to participate in it," says Second Life's Smith. "Second Life is a collaborative social environment, and the best way to take full advantage of it is to dive in and participate."
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