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  Misguidance On Branding In Virtual Worlds  
Posted 2006-02-21 by Tony Walsh
Remember the rise of blogs? It wasn't so long ago that public and business interests were scrambling to make some sense of the blogging explosion. Some still are. I recall in particular how marketers worked so hard to wrap their heads around the naked conversations blogging allows. Plenty of bad advice was offered by consultants as to how best convert blogs into marketing tools, or at least leverage bloggers for their superhuman buzz-powers.

As I expected, 2006 is shaping up to be the year that virtual worlds explode. Like blogs, virtual worlds are being eyed as the next big thing in terms of marketing potential. But don't believe everything you read. Shanth Interactive has posted a rather misguided report on branding in virtual worlds, obviously written by one or more authors with little or no first-hand experience with the locales discussed.

Following is my detailed response to the Shanth report. Shanth's text has been emphasized in bold.

Looking for new ways to engage and influence trendsetters in technology? Virtual Worlds such as Linden Lab’s Second Life, Habbo Hotel, War of the Warcraft, EverQuest, Sims, Ultima Online, Star Wars Galaxies and a few others are an exciting opportunity for marketers.

Only one of the virtual worlds Shanth mentions here is an easy target for in-world marketing. That venue is Second Life, which is not only looking for partnership opportunities, but allows its users to advertise on behalf of third parties without prior clearance from Linden Lab. Habbo Hotel is known for integrated branding opportunities, but these are established by contacting Sulake, the makers of Habbo. Then there's The Sims Online, which Shanth calls "Sims," and is pretty much a dead venue--it was at least a failed game. Ultima Online is 8 years old, and isn't known to partner with marketers. World of Warcraft, which Shanth calls "War of the Warcraft," hasn't yet integrated branding in-world and doesn't seem likely to. Star Wars Galaxies is a game based on a known brand, and isn't known to partner with outside marketers. Everquest II (not "Everquest") has been known to invite product placement, specifically a deal with Pizza Hut last year--no other deals have since been struck that I am aware of. These worlds are hardly an exciting opportunity for marketers as Shanth claims. Most are an untried, unlikely venue for marketing. An exciting opportunity is one that is likely to bear fruit. The best bets here are Second Life and Habbo.

Things that happen in virtual worlds are starting to have a real-life impact. In fact people who play online fantasy games routinely buy and sell fantasy-game currencies and other cyber-game assets using real dollars, sometimes on Web sites hosted by the game developers, sometimes on third-party sites. The lines between the “real” world and the virtual world are blurring. There are millions of dollars worth of virtual world artifacts being sold on ebay and craigslist, real IPO’s are happening and people are even making a very nice living off of these new economies.

What Shanth means to be saying here is that graphical virtual worlds are having a more tangible impact on real life than their text-based predecessors. Very few players are getting rich off virtual worlds. In some countries, most notably China, gray-market industries have sprung up around virtual worlds. Virtual worlds are not yet big business for average players. There is not a 1:1 ratio between the real and virtual world.

As these communities continue to evolve into their own cultures it’s important to remember that as art mimics life so do these virtual worlds. Some folks are (believe it or not) craving advertising and marketing—after all our “real” world is saturated with them and a virtual world can’t be entirely “realistic” with out any of these messages and images.

Wrong. Someone's obviously been drinking the Massive Incorporated Kool-Aid here. A tiny percentage of virtual worlds are based on the real world. Most are based on fantasy worlds where there is no sensible way of displaying real-world branding--in other words, in an overwhelming majority of virtual worlds, real-world branding destroys the fictional reality rather than enhances it. Exceptions include Second Life, which is as real or fantastic as its users want, and The Matrix Online, where real-world advertisements have found their way onto in-world billboards. Even if "some folks" did "crave" advertising and marketing, is that enough reason to bring your brand to a virtual world? I think not.

Shanth goes on to offer tips on marketing in virtual worlds. I don't recommend following the firm's advice.

1) Make the Virtual Worlds an extension of your current marketing and communications objectives

When trying out new “real-estate” and marketing techniques, it’s important to stay mindful of your brand. You don’t want conflicting messages or images. Try to create “events” that are complimentary to an existing marketing campaign.

You can stay mindful of your brand all you want, but that brand is in a context of a greater brand--the virtual world. Your brand is not more important than the world in which it is displayed. As explained earlier, your brand isn't even going to get into a virtual world easily, since most aren't yet open for integrated branding business. So creating "events" for your brand is only possible in a few locations, and if you aren't careful, your events will rub the citizenry of these virtual worlds the wrong way, resulting in backlash.

MTV is another great example of a brand experimenting with virtual worlds.

They recently held a call for auditions for avatars (virtual people) that will be featured in an upcoming fashion show on MTV's internet channel "Overdrive." MTV Second Life Avatar fashion show was great way to build traffic to their website and build relationships with their more “forward thinking” audience.

Again, Shanth is totally off-base here. The MTV fashion show was more a way for MTV to get free content for its internet channel "Overdrive." There are only about 150,000 accounts in Second Life, with not much more than 5,000 users online at any given time. This was more a PR exercise for Linden Lab than MTV, which couldn't possibly have needed a few thousand web site visitors that badly.

2) Engage with in-life citizens

These worlds are created and built by the users in them—they are in fact the ultimate form of "user created content.” New Media today is created and grown out of the ideas of participatory media, virtual worlds are the manifestation of this movement. The best way for marketers to reach the in-life citizens is to facilitate interaction and encourage participation.

Dead wrong. Only Second Life could be said to be created and built by its users, and even this is an oversimplification. Very few virtual worlds allow users to objects of their own design. In most cases, user-created content is limited to player names, guild names, and transient text-based chatter. In most cases, marketing to users is not even allowed without express permission of the maker or publisher of the game. So Shanth's advice here is not only a great way to get banned from these spaces, but also a great way to earn the resentment of the users of the virtual world. Shanth presumes that virtual world citizens are open to talking about brands. That's an asinine presumption.

Wells Fargo is attempting to do just this. Wells Fargo’s Stage Coach Island is a digital environment intended to help young people learn financial responsibility. Visitors there can skydive, fly hovercrafts, dance and shop. But woven into the experience is a series of financial messages intended to help them learn something about money management.

Well, actually, what Wells Fargo is trying to do is partner with virtual worlds. Its first partnership with Second Life was a failure, so it moved its business to Active Worlds. It didn't just drop into a virtual world and start marketing to users. It has established a self-contained adverworld of its own.

3) Get the word out

One of the best ways to ensure maximum participation in these in-world events is to reach out to in-world journalists. Yes, there are even journalists reporting live from these virtual worlds. New World Notes’ Wagner James Au aka Hamlet Linden is an embedded journalist in Second Life. He has a rather large readership by both in-world and out of world accounts.

Hamlet Linden is one of the few in-world reporters in existence, and one of the highest-profile writers in the very specific domain of Second Life. There's also the famed Second Life Herald, which is likely to rip your brand to shreds, and I've done my fair share of reporting on Second Life as well. Where are the rest of the reporters? Answer: You can count them on one hand. Virtual world reporting is not a "trend."

Don’t forget the bloggers. There are quite a few who are “reporting” on their experiences and happenings in these virtual worlds. For more tips on reaching out to bloggers please refer to our article Blogger Relations—The Rules of Engagement .

You know, after all the bad tips offered so far, I'm not sure Shanth's advice is worth referring to. Pitching average bloggers with PR is a rocky road, to be sure. Approach with caution. Don't lie. Don't fluff. There's your advice.

The virtual world is boundless and developing. This is the time for marketers to shape the norms and polices surrounding these new mediums. Think big, stay flexible and stay true to your brand message.

The virtual world is not a contiguous space encompassing a variety of games. Instead, there are dozens of virtual worlds to contend with, each with their own peculiarities, business models, operating methods, and cultures. Marketers are simply not knowledgeable enough to "shape the norms and polices surrounding these new mediums." All that shaping is already being done by the makers, administrators, and users of virtual worlds. Thinking big is fine, and staying true to your brand message is never a bad thing, but the chances are pretty slim that a given virtual world is a good marketing target--if that world is even open to real-world branding.
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Comment posted by csven
February 21, 2006 @ 1:57 pm
I'm so glad you found this and not me. Amazing how someone can get it so wrong, isn't it?

So much for Shanth Interactive.

Thanks for taking the time to post this entry.
Comment posted by Tony Walsh
February 21, 2006 @ 2:20 pm
I almost feel like writing an actual article with actually useful tips for marketers. One major issue I didn't discuss above is that outside companies might find themselves competing with established in-world businesses for the same virtual market. Just because an outside brand is established doesn't mean it will be more desirable in a user-created online world. It may be more viable for outside brands to co-opt in-world brands rather than try to compete directly.
Comment posted by csven
February 21, 2006 @ 2:39 pm
In addition, while posting my entry linking to this one, I mentioned the dangers of entering a virtual world environment. If companies don't like losing control of their brand in meatspace, are they ever in for a virtual surprise.
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