SXSW Xcript: Avatar-Based Marketing

Overheard at the panel on Avatar-based marketing: “It’s fun, you can sit down, make out with people.” I got most of this panel, including a couple of the audience questions.

Moderator, Tony Walsh of the Clickable Culture blog
Paul Hemp, senior editor Harvard Business Review
Linda Zimmer, CEO of MarCom:Interactive
Eric Gruber of MTV, helped launch Virtual Laguna Beach and vHills
Lauren Wheeler of Three Rings

Hemp posed a question: How does a marketing message aimed at a consumer get refracted when it passes through the intermediary of that user’s avatar? Does the avatar act as a prism that changes in some way a real-world marketer’s messge. While a little conceptual, the question is pretty important. Some would say it’s really a meaningless question because the user behind the avatar has the real-world wallet. What’s the avatar have to do with it? My thought is that the avatar represents something about that consumer that is important. Advertising has always targetted consumers’ alter egos, the smiling happy terrifically popular person just waiting to emerge from the consumer’s psyhce with the help of the consoumnres’s product. Here the marketer doesn’t have to hunt for that, it’s on display in the form of the avatar, and can be segmented, terageted, and help understand the consumer behind it.

Zimmer: Corporations are very itnerested in getting their feet wet in VWs. What does that mean? What are the new content categories that these VWs make possible? Niche marketing is very important, but what I am finding is, once a marketer gets intro’d to virtual worlds, suddenly the social media space of wikis and blogs make a whole lot more sense. By being immersed in these environments, marketers are suddenly understanding what it means to connect to an audience. Very interested in identity. Big question for consumer, but also big one for companies. Reputation management is extremely important.

Gruber: Because I’m with MTV, I’m going to show you a quick video about vHills, in which we bring the cast into the virtul world and extend their role through the virtual space. Shows video of The Hills cast in vHills, and the cast talking about the experience. They dress, marvel at the world’s resemblance to the real world, and talk about connecting with fans and with people from all over the world. Interesting to note that the cast is pretty much the same demographic as the platform’s audience: “It’s fun, you can sit down, make out with people.”

It’s proved wilidly succesful. We can’t keep the cast out of there. The fans love it. The cast have become attached to their avatars. Usually it’s a scheduled event. We’ve had bands come in who have logged in without us, but we give them their passwords so they can log in whenever they want.

Shows slides about how to bring a really big TV audience into a virtual world. Talks about Project Leapfrog, the VW initiative at MTV. MTV wants to deepen audience relationship via interconnected platforms so they can engage on a deeper level. We tried to pick and choose and leverage the best new media technologies that fit with the shows. We did it with a very small team, 5 internal when we launched, about 7 now, outside partners.

Short-term and long-term roadmaps to connect the linear TV experience with the much deeper VW experience to create a hybrid medium that ties them together. As the cast goes to spring break, etc., the user can too. The world expanded with the show. We recreated the locations they went to. Virtual Hills was a spinoff of Laguna Beach. So we recreated a part of the Hollywood Hills. Concept here is that we exteneded their roles they had in the show, into the VW. Recreated the town of Laguna Beach and a section of the Hollywood Hills. Used our relationships fromthe TV show and we built them out.

Lauren Wheeler: Project manager at Three Rings Design, known for Puzzle Pirates, as MMORPG with pirates that look a lot like LEGO people. Gameplay is based on casual puzzle games. The game’s been largely popular. I think we have about 2.7 million registered pirates, not that many concurrent players, or paying players, but we have a number of players that give us lots of money. Our first model was subscription based at $10 a month, but when that changed to Doubloons, the revenue shot up. People are willing to pay for swords or familiars [pets]. Can be downloaded or played in a browser.

Couple of months ago we launched Bang Howdy, multiplayer and singleplayer game, a tactical strategy game, not an RPG. Create a team of units and play in different towns, frontier town, Indian trading post, whacky steampunk environment, compete to brand cattle, build totem poles.

Now they’ve just announced “A bunch of avatars all moving around online. People love social netwokring, and they also like to have varous representations of themsevles, but sometimes they want more control over what that looks like, so we’ll have player-created content that can be marketed to other payers, and a way to actually cash out. We’re trying to encourage people to build games, that’s fundnamentally what we want is gamplay within the world.”

“It’s exciting to see people creating these things already. Users can sell stuff to each other. Right now we’re in private alpha. Hope to launch it by summer. Got a few people invited, a lot of Puzzle Pirates players, they’re making games in flash, avatars in flash, and we’re giving them a lot of our codebase from Puzzle Pirates to do this. There’s a catalog you can purchase from, but everything users create get moved to the catalog.”

The “attention currency” will at some point be translatable into gold.

Tony: Asks Paul how the Harvard Business Review got its feet wet in virtual worlds.

Paul Hemp: It was this idea that if there is an alternate identity, is that identity in some way a shadow consumer that marketers can market to? Asks Lauren if people can intro branded stuff into Whirled.

Wheeler: It’s possible, and we’re not going to say no. We basically want to make it very democratic, though. If a random developer wants to create a bunch of avatars for sale, they can do it. McDonald’s can do that too.

Linda Zimmer is also the person behind Business Communicators of Second Life. “With wikis and blogs becoming so popular over last couple of years, the evolution of the Web is certainly going in a more social way, including toward virtual worlds. We have innovators out there, but most corporations are sitting back and watching for the moment.”

Tony asks Gruber about shooting a fashion show in Second Life and about his history in virtual worlds. “My life has evolved online since I was ten years old, video games, BBSes, more, going to MTV-themed chat rooms as a kid. Second Life was probably my first avatar that I really got and saw the potential.”

Lauren: I wasn’t on The Sims Online, but I did start in games, doing localizations for The Sims and Sim City, and production for The Sims 2.

Paul Hemp: We’ve created a 3D venue with great potential to peddle wares, the opportunjity for engagement is tremendous. There’s a sub-question: If you’re a company going into Second Life and do brand building or sell products or services, does it matter that the people you’re selling to aren’t the real people? Does it give you an insight into consumers’ desires that you wouldn’t otherwise have.

Linda: A couple of market research companies in SL are creating panels of consumers there. We had this debate about do we need their real life demographic informaton, or are we actually marketing to the avatar. There is no agreement about this. There is this perception that I’m a marketer in there and I’m marketing to the needs of the avatar. That’s a different business model than if you’re marketing to the person behind the avatar.

Gruber disagrees slightly: You’re always kind of marketing to the typist behind the avatar. You don’t separate the avatar from the person, they really become one and the same. There are different technological platforms, but they’re expressing their desriers and needs and wants there, it’s themselves that you always have to keep in mind, and it’s their experiecnes that help or hurt your brand.

Hemp: There obviously always is the puppeteer, but you say things in that space that you might not say in the real world. That’s an example of the avatar acting differently, so is there an opportunity to have the avatar try things that the real-world user wouldn’t do. But having tried it out in this space, is there a chance that the person behind the avatar might be more comfrortable with it and try it out in the real world. It’s the relationship between the two that’s so interesting.

Panel takes questions. First one is actually a long speech from the Reverend Tune Oddfellow. You had to be there. Though he does make a good point about emotional connection to avatars.

Betsy Book of asks whether ther are types of brands that seem to work better in VWs than othere.

Linda: Companies that understand content. The media companies are doing the best. Reuters, Information Week, CNet. They’re extending the basis of their content into the community. The consumer companies not so much. They don’t get what this one-on-one community-building is all about.

Gruber: We work really closely with a carefully selected few sponsors. But we try to make it like a real world. If you fit in the real world, you can most likely fit in our virtual world. There are demographics to consider of course. But most products could find some application and exposure, and probably even some use in VWs.

Hemp: It does seem like it’s going to be a brand or product where you can take advantage of the interaction with the product. Clothing you can engage with the product itself. It’s less useful if it’s simply billboarding a brand. You want to somehow find a way to leverage that opportunity for engagement.

Gruber responds to a questions by describing the many metrics MTV has about people spending time in their worlds. Wheeler talks about Three Rings’ attention currency. There will be an exchange rate between the attention currency, which you earn for engaging in activities, and the micro currency. That’s how they’ll measure users’ attention.

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