Virtual world: It's a term that can make marketers shudder in excitement or quake in fear.
And with good reason: These 3D, social communities have been regarded as an important next step in brand engagement, but their very nature has puzzled agencies and marketers about how to use them. What's more, the frenzy of hype surrounding virtual worlds generated a mini-backlash of sorts, when some agencies found the results of their initial forays underwhelming, or downright disappointing.
The backlash is due to poorly planned and overhyped promotions conducted in virtual worlds.
There are a number of different worlds in the marketplace right now. Some worlds cater to a business audience, providing tools for simulation and meetings. Other worlds, like my company, There.com, cater to consumer activities where the focus is on socializing.
In terms of advertising, we are seeing big brands like Coca-Cola, Cosmo Girl, Scion, and IBM participate in existing virtual worlds, while media giants like MTV Networks and Disney have created their own. Many brands are increasing their participation in virtual worlds, either through expansion or by re-upping standing engagements.
Virtual worlds are yet another social medium for advertisers to reckon with, and this time it’s in 3D. That's a mixed blessing: Since a virtual world's engagement model is far richer than the straightforward 2D cost-per-impression (CPM) model, we have to invent a whole new way of measuring brand engagement and ROI.
On the plus side, marketers can get far more precise information about how consumers perceive and interact with their brands and campaigns in virtual worlds. A virtual world can tell you exactly what customers see your campaign, how long they spend with it, how they talk about it, and, ultimately, if they act on it by purchasing a virtual or even a real product. We can report on exactly who interacted with a campaign, for how long, and even capture information about how customers are talking about the brand "in world."
Now for the downside: If an advertiser throws up a virtual billboard, unless the content is extremely appealing or revealing, people are not likely to talk about it. The key is to create something consumers can really interact with in order to generate a little buzz within the community -- like a nightclub, model car, or even an item of clothing.
Firms must really come up with creative ways for consumers to interact with their brands. To cite the overused term, agencies must “think out of the box” to attract and keep the attention of virtual world members, just as they would for a campaign in the real world. Banner ad models can't be applied -- in fact, that would be giving some members exactly what they came to virtual worlds to avoid!
You'd guess that these types of immersive, creative campaigns would improve brand engagement, and for once, the reality lives up to the promise: On average, our members spend about 10 minutes interacting with a brand in the virtual world, compared to an average of 12.16 seconds interacting with traditional online advertising. That's a 6,000 percent improvement, which is even more amazing since it's based on actual data.
The future of virtual worlds is really about marketers tying engagement into brand loyalty. For example, Scion has done a number of unique campaigns in virtual worlds that really tie into the brand, like having consumers create customized Scion cars and turning Scion car models into giant night clubs where you can hang out with your friends. Coca-Cola created a destination within a virtual world, which embodied Coca-Cola's brand ethos, and they tied it to their very successful MyCoke Rewards program, which allows members to redeem purchases for virtual merchandise. To make sure this Coca-Cola area stays fresh and exciting, they plan a series of events and activities that will keep users entertained.
What will the future hold for virtual world advertising? We’ll see many more engaging applications of brands that are meant to interact with consumers. As more consumers and businesses enter the worlds, advertisers will follow. Sure, some applications will fail, but the business that engages with its customers is at an advantage. Since the provider lives and breathes what its members do every day, who better to work with an advertiser or company to plan an effective campaign in their world?
— Michael Wilson CEO, There.com