Second Life is just the first step for brands in virtual worlds

The talk of the industry these past weeks has been about marketers leaving Second Life – not to ditch virtual worlds but to experiment with other virtual destinations such as Gaia Online, There, and Entropia Universe. Virtual worlds exist on many levels, catering for varying audiences – so this should come as no surprise.

Brands are entering virtual worlds due to the increasing number of users, their attractive demographic profile, the quality time they spend and the opportunities they offer. Virtual worlds are not games: consumer behaviour more closely resembles the kind of behaviour we see in chatrooms or social networking platforms, and already brands are engaging users in compelling ways. Reebok’s work in Second Life, for instance, is particularly innovative. In-world, you can buy Reebok trainers for your avatar that are coloured and branded as you like. You can then choose to buy the footwear in real life – with Reebok making your self-designed trainers to order, delivering them to your “real” front door. It doesn’t stop there. Reebok takes note of what footwear virtual residents design and buy and how they’re worn, and uses this information to improve marketing in the real world.

The downside of this is the limited reach of any one “world”. The challenge now for marketers is to choose which ones offer the optimal consumer reach and best represent their target market, and to understand how to appeal to that market. Emerging forms of advertising are proving highly effective at targeting the most elusive yet lucrative of audiences. So brands will no doubt expand beyond Second Life, just as brands advertise in one publication over another, or in several complementary titles.

In a similar vein, in-game advertising has for some time been offering the kind of brand interaction, “sweet spot” audience and ROI measurement that has given rise to £1bn-plus market forecasts by 2012. As well as guaranteeing its appearance in a range of the world’s leading interactive entertainment franchises, a brand can tell precisely how often its virtual products or advertising are used and seen. This is not just branding your firm’s virtual office, it’s being part of the consumer’s own world.

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