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  Selling To Avatars  
Posted 2006-03-27 by Tony Walsh
Since I can't bring myself to fork over six bucks for The Harvard Business Review's "Breakthrough Ideas for 2006," I will have to live with a third-party account of "The Avatar as Consumer," idea number 15 of 20 featured in the magazine. Edublogger Christopher D. Sessums read the original article and shares his thoughts, suggesting (based at least in part on the article) that "Companies could even market directly to avatars 'persuading them to purchase real-world goods for their creators.'"

I hope I'm getting some kind of crazy broken-telephone interpretation of what the magazine really meant, because on the surface, it appears The Harvard Business Review believes that avatars are self-aware creatures capable of exercising good judgement. Avatars are digital puppets controlled by a human being. You can't market to an avatar, only to the human being behind the avatar. Once we've developed artificially-intelligent digital agents, this may change, but currently, you might as well try to get a toaster to buy bread--it just won't work.
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Comment posted by csven
March 27, 2006 @ 4:50 pm
I've been reading increasingly idiotic articles by people who've obviously never engaged in anything beyond an arcade game (circa 1985). It certainly sounds like this was a well-researched piece - there are probably plenty of other references cited.

If only these people would do more than read about all this or attend conferences about it.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 27, 2006 @ 5:51 pm
Agreed, although I think reading is fine as long as the sources are good. Most don't seem to be. There's a conference in Toronto this week about monetizing content, and the panels on games seem pretty weak with the potential for misinformation.
Comment posted by csven
March 27, 2006 @ 7:27 pm
I'm not entirely sure reading is enough to grasp what's transpiring. It's like that Ad Age piece where avatars, according the author, were "novelties" and apparently nothing more.

The advertising and marketing community sure doesn't seem to fully appreciate what's going on here.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 28, 2006 @ 10:03 am
I hear ya :)
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 28, 2006 @ 1:21 pm
Interesting related quote from Terra Novan Ed Castronova today:

"I get so many emails and calls from people who cannot understand why these spaces matter to those immersed in them. I try to 'explain' it, but I am not sure it can be 'explained'. You have to experience it. Read this book and you'll be a lot closer to experiencing it, and maybe close to getting it."
Comment posted by csven
March 28, 2006 @ 3:28 pm
Having followed this technology for years, waiting for the day (still) when CAD and videogames merge, I was better prepared than most... I thought. I was still unprepared.

If people today had been told 20 years ago they'd depend on cell phones and email, they'd have been similarly perplexed.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
March 29, 2006 @ 12:01 am
Tony, Tony, Tony. You're just not getting into the psychology of this dude.

Of *course* you can market to the avatar. And *of course* the avatar isn't the same as the human being, in some respects -- or even in many respects! Many people *don't* make a little guy just like themselves in RL, they you did. They make a DIFFERENT guy. He does DIFFERENT stuff. That's why they call it Second Life yuk yuk!

So that sprite or being that the avatar becomes (Will Wright called it "investing consciousness in a toy") is a creature that might have completely different wants and needs and ideas than that entity on the meat rack in meat world.
So in that other space, that entity might consume things differently.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 29, 2006 @ 9:35 am
Prok, next time you're in Second Life, leave your avatar at one of the malls, come back after 8 hours and see how many consumer goods he's purchased.

The choice of avatar style and persona in an online world might change the buying habits and openness to suggestion of the person controlling the avatar, but the avatar itself is just a shell.

When companies sell dog food, they don't market it to dogs. They market it to the dog owner, by selling the health benefits for the dog, the "taste" for the dog, or, by selling dog food like people food (for example, with luxury meals and treats). Dog food marketers aren't advertising to dogs, because dogs aren't capable of making a purchasing decision.

I do believe that dogs--and avatars--can influence a purchasing decision, but ultimately that decision is made by the person behind the dog--or avatar.

I acknowledge the concept that some people believe they "become" their avatar, but I also believe that "becoming" an avatar means different things to different people. In some cases, the relationship may be similar to a stage actor and his/her role. In others, the relationship may border on technoshamanism. Because our mileage may vary, this provides a rather uneven and unpredictable road for marketers. So even if we and our avatars are indistinguishable (in my case, there is a clear distinction, but in others... who knows?), our degree of connectedness with the avatar varies, and therefore provides a very challenging avenue for marketing.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
March 29, 2006 @ 10:09 am
Tony, that day may be closer than you think. The avatar already receives updates from many creators in SL that automatically update his product, or deliver a product to him when he's offline. Certain limited product lines that are hugely in demand get waiting lists. List a spot on the hottest new private island rentals. With third-party sites, like on the regular Internet, people can be billed automatically for things.

Perhaps we're a long way from avatars being automatically debited while not present and driving their avatar, but in fact, there's a demand for this -- quite a few people would like to set up automatic billing accounts that debit their avatar whether or not they are present for things like their ad placement in classifieds or their rentals, so that they don't lose their places through eviction of their prims.

In RL, I set up "future shopping expeditions" by having tripod automatically debit my debit card accuont once a month whether or not I am actually driving my mouse or avatar -- standing electronic accounts are the norm, and nobody wrings their hands that a live human being isn't shaking another live and present human being's actual hand.

I continue to maintain that the avatar that people choose is going to be enough different from them -- and even a multiplicity of selves - that the marketers have to adjust their view and see what avatar groups form, i.e. furries or whatever, and market accordingly. They can't just think, "Oh, all females at the age of 32 like to buy wall paintings," they have to ask, what kind of wall paintings, if any, would furries have in their home.

If the road to marketing is uneven and unpredictable, what of it? Do they want to market or not lol? Especially in a place like SL, no one is holding a gun to their head to make them come and market. You and others who appear to hate and fear large American corporations will be the first to bitch about some giant entity coming in with its brand on every corner (and they're not likely to do this precisely because the world is becoming further atomized).

Are you positing that unless this world and similar worlds provide a smoother world for marketing, they'll fail? It would be interesting to get the metrics for what *would* make you declare Second Life a "success," Tony lol.

The plurality of subjectivities of what people become when they become their avatars or at least drive their avatars isn't really rocket science. Just looking around inworld and see the plethora of males 20-something in muscle Ts or rock Ts, 30-something geeks deliberately putting on rumpled corduroys and colored sneakers and glasses; 30-something females dressing up like tarts even if they have a Ph.D., etc.

A number of forums posters have pointed out that the Lindens could be harnessing the Picks power by making the top picks be what in fact the masses actually pick, which might turn out to be actually different than the top-trafficked places like the Ice Palace. A big problem in processing these picks would no doubt be discovered as people would find out that the "picks" are in fact a kind of MySpace. People put up their favourite friends in the game or romantic interests, or their business policies, or political statements, and not just MySitePick.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
March 29, 2006 @ 10:46 am
Prok, my replies to your bolded comments follow...

The avatar already receives updates from many creators in SL that automatically update his product, or deliver a product to him when he's offline...With third-party sites, like on the regular Internet, people can be billed automatically for things.

Sure, but "receiving an update for" and "billed automatically" is not the same thing as "making a conscious decision." That was the whole point of my original toaster comparison. You can program a computerized toaster to order bread when its sensors detect there are only three slices left, but you can't reasonably say that the toaster "wanted" more bread. And who chooses which brand of bread the toaster orders? The toaster can't make an intelligent decision about that, and that's why marketing to a toaster is pointless.

I continue to maintain that the avatar that people choose is going to be enough different from them -- and even a multiplicity of selves - that the marketers have to adjust their view and see what avatar groups form, i.e. furries or whatever, and market accordingly.

I agree marketers will have to learn about their target markets, but I don't think every user/avatar relationship will be the same. This being said, there will be commonalities or "types" of user/avatar relationships that can be targeted.

Are you positing that unless this world and similar worlds provide a smoother world for marketing, they'll fail?

Nope. SL doesn't depend on outside marketers to survive. NeoPets, on the other hand, seems to have a business model that relies on co-branding and product-placement. SL and other virtual worlds are in the majority at this time as far as marketing venues go--very few virtual worlds are currently reliant on outside advertisers and marketers.
Comment posted by Prokofy Neva
March 29, 2006 @ 11:20 am
Well, I'll have to split hairs Tony and say that my conscious decision to always and everywhere have my Gametime Contest Board updated with new versions in my inventory always and everywhere until the heat-death of the sun, is in fact, conscious at the time it is made, and its unconscious replication 8 million years out from this point in time doesn't reduce the reality of my consciousness in decision-making at this time.

Marketers like Aimee Weber have had the success they claim (difficult to really measure given the lack of transparency of the economy and people's businesses) because they can appeal to nerdy geek girls who were obviously among the many early adapters -- and both amplify their geekiness to high fashion AND make them feel pretty with lacy underthings. And those nerdy geek girls of course include all those weekend cross-dressers in the male population are probably among Aimee's most enthusiastic customers. So any marketer along that lines has to find a way to appeal not only to the hets but figure out how to reach weekend transvestites so that they feel that buying their gossamer stockings and wings are not an embarrassment but an empowerment. That sort of thing, I imagine.

Yes, there will be types, and they won't be rocket science and will parallel RL demographics.

I guess LL doesn't need co-branding and placement because they can keep tapping that "always another guy to buy the island" thing.
Comment posted by Burke Prefect
March 29, 2006 @ 1:23 pm
My avatar keeps logging on in strange places. No memory of what he's been doing. His money is either less or more than when I left him. For some reason he has new genitalia and bling attachments.

My avatar's been busy while I was gone.
Comment posted by hempman richard
May 9, 2006 @ 12:21 pm
As I told Tony when I emailed him, I was somewhat timid to rise to the defense of my short article when his item first appeared in late March. But now, with an expanded article on the topic coming out in Harvard Business Review in June, I felt compelled to weigh in.

First, my apologies for your having to pay for the article. It was actually posted and accessible for free for a month after publication in the print edition, but reverted to paid content after that.

Second, Prokovy Neva did a good job of capturing my argument in his comments. As I said in the piece: “Sure, the creator, however strong an avatar’s identity, retains control of the real-world wallet. But avatars can influence purchasing decisions or, at the very least, offer insights into their creators’ tastes.” And Tony himself makes one of the points I make in the piece – that you can conceivably and usefully segment avatars by type.

Anyway, as I said, there is a longer piece coming out on the topic in the June issue of HBR that looks further at what I think is a fascinating topic. It, too, will be free to read for a month at

I should mention that I got help from a lot of people and sources in reporting the article. And while I was able to mention many of them (including this blog), I wasn’t able to mention Ilya Vedrashko or his terrific blog "Brands in Games", which provided me with some wonderful examples of brands appearing in "Second Life." I particularly like an article from his blog that wasn’t really relevant to me but that seemed to offer a wily guerilla approach for companies trying to generate buzz without getting burnt: "Fictional and Proxy Brands: Sprunk".
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
May 9, 2006 @ 12:58 pm
hempman, thanks for chiming in -- it's a pity I missed the free-content window on the original article, but I hope to have better timing when your next article comes out. it's a fascinating topic, to be sure -- glad this blog was of use. i've enjoyed Vedrashko's posts as well, i just wish he'd update more often :)

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