Last week, the Hamburg-based research firm Komjuniti published the first extensive survey of Resident attitudes toward real world marketing in Second Life. It’s been a long time in coming: a British branding agency established a forward operating base in SL back in early 2004 (and for their efforts, were greeted by throngs of sign-waving protesters threatening to boycott their island.)
In succeeding years, a miniature dot com boom has attracted a slew of big name companies and established brands, from MTV and Coke, to Dell, American Apparel, Coldwell Banker, among many more. Up until now, few have asked hard questions about what these companies were gaining for all that effort and cash (other than any publicity hit from the announcement.)
The early results from Komjuniti, as it turns out, are not encouraging: 72% of their 200 respondents [PDF file] said they were disappointed with real world company activities in Second Life; just over 40% considered these efforts a one-off not likely to last.
As bleak as these numbers may seem, it’s worth noting that they aren’t actually too far off from reactions to traditional Internet advertising. For example, four years after Net-based advertising had reached full fury, Yankelovich Parterns conducted a 2004 study and found that 60% of consumers had a significantly more negative opinion of marketing and advertising on the Web now than a few years previous, while 65% described themselves as feeling constantly bombarded by ads online. So in a relatively similar space of time, advertisers and brand promoters in Second Life have managed to annoy their potential customers only slightly more then their established brethren.
More worrying, however, are another pair of numbers: while 41% of respondents in the Yankelovich study said that Internet advertising had at least some relevance to them, a mere 7% of respondents in the Komjuniti study say that the SL-based promotion would have a positive impact on their future buying behavior.
Why has the failure been so thorough? Not necessarily for a lack of desire, because the Komjuniti participants also report “they would like to be able to interact more with the brands represented” in SL; metaverse versions of established hotels and retail brands garner the most positive reaction. These two points offer a sliver of hope to the metaverse marketer. As to the underwhelming results thus far, I can suggest three factors not covered in Komjuniti’s analysis.
Teleporting is to SL Advertising What the Channel Clicker is to TV Ads
The standard means of travel in SL is point-to-point teleportation, near-instantaneous transit from one x,y,z location to another. (Though it gets more press, Superman-esque flying is mostly used in short, localized bursts to get around obstacles.) P2P teleporting renders billboards and most other location-based advertising useless, and in any case, most SL marketers buy and develop on private virtual islands, where they can fully control the branding experience.
Due to server architecture, however, these islands are only accessible by teleportation, making it the ultimate opt-in experience. Giving marketers the unique challenge of getting Residents to voluntary dive into their ad, and stay long enough for any kind of meaningful brand immersion. So it’s not all that surprising marketers are largely floundering in Second Life: it’s like trying to create ads in a 3D Tivo.
Death by Green Dots (or lack thereof)
Residents navigate the world through a dynamic map; in it, every avatar in-world is represented by a green dot, and this feature has become a quick way for getting a visual read on where other Residents are in the world, and what they’re doing. In various locales and islands, green dots congregate in large numbers, and users’ immediate inference is, if lots of people are going to these places, something interesting must be going on there.
Any noticeable clump of green dots attracts more dots, and as those grow, more follow– a feedback loop colloquially known as “the green dot effect”. Second Life’s most successful entrepreneurs (who’ve proven far more agile and inventive then most of their real world counterparts) sustain this flurry of dots by holding constant events, giveaways, and games, and even go so far to pay Residents to visit. Amazingly, corporate marketers have been slow to replicate these homegrown strategies. (Surely several interns can host regular activities at their company’s SL site? Has to beat photocopying and bagel runs.)
A Failure of Imagination
To play in Second Life, corporations must first come to a humbling realization: in the context of the fantastic, their brands as they exist in the real world are boring, banal, and unimaginative. Car companies are trying to compete with college kids who turn a virtual automotive showroom into a 24/7 hiphop dance party, and create lovingly designed muscle cars that fly, and auction off for $2000 in real dollars at charity auctions.
Fashion companies have it even harder. A thriving homegrown industry of avatar clothing design (free of production costs and overseas mass production) already exists, largely ruled by housewives with astounding talent and copious amounts of time, and since the designers are popular personalities in Second Life (whose avatars become their brand), they enjoy– and frankly deserve– the home team advantage.
Faced with such talented competition, smart marketers should concede defeat, and hire these college kids and housewives to create concept designs and prototypes that re-imagine their brands merged to existing SL-based brands which have already proved themselves in a world of infinite possibility. Or as the Komjuniti study suggests, they can keep building sterile shopping malls, and continue wondering why Residents prefer nude dance parties, giant frogs singing alt-folk rock, and samurai deathmatches— and often, all three at the same time.