Entering the Social Sites

As if life weren’t complicated enough, millions of people are now living their lives twice.

For a growing segment of society, the virtual lives afforded by virtual worlds have unlimited appeal. Internet users can assume alternate identities in the form of customized avatars (define). As in reality, they can procure items to make their lives easier and more pleasant.

They can also do something else that mirrors the real world: socialize.

You might not think of these games and worlds in conjunction with social networking, but the differences between them are actually very limited. That most users don’t present themselves realistically is beside the point. The appeal lies in the ability of virtual worlds to facilitate interaction among their users.

And like social networks, there’s a virtual world for just about every demographic. While adults are flocking to Second Life and entertainment-themed Doppelganger, a reported 7 million young girls worldwide are working to raise their paper-doll popularity quotient at Stardoll. Meanwhile, the teens are all at Gaia Online, “exploring, chatting and just hanging out.”

Another similarity between social networks and virtual worlds is the advertising within them hardly comes with an instruction manual. Media planners and buyers have racked their brains about how to best introduce advertising on sites like MySpace and Facebook and struggled to determine the level of corporate presence users are willing to accept.

Some believe integration is the way to go, creating profiles for fictional marketing characters and mascots to reduce the sting of the knowledge that there are still corporations at their core. Banners are always an option as well; Microsoft teamed up with Facebook last summer to deliver display ads, along with text-based, content-targeted messaging.

Facebook also takes a user-initiated approach to delivering marketing messaging by combining News Feed Sponsored Stories — which appear alongside a user’s actual News Feed — with related advertiser-sponsored Groups that users can join to converse with other fans of TV programs, movies, and brands. This bundled placement strikes a balance between traditional advertising and community-based branding that other sites haven’t managed to achieve.

So far, efforts to infiltrate virtual worlds have taken a parallel approach, offering users the ability to opt in to something that’s of value without being overly obtrusive. In these alternate realities, for example, you’ll find brands offering avatars (and their real-life counterparts) pizza and the ability to order custom-made apparel. Second Life users who want to pick up some flowers, can enter a virtual brick-and-mortar store (or should that be “pixel-and-mortar”?) and interact with 1-800-Flowers.com, the company that had it built. Users actively choose to engage with the brand, just as members of Facebook’s Sponsored Groups do.

Early adopters confess it’s all trial and error. Ultimately, they concede, there must be some branding value to introducing consumers to real-world products in a fantasy environment.

Virtual world advertisers no doubt look to the legacy of multiplayer online and console games to help shape their placement decisions. They paved the way for advertising in virtual environments, both through traditional placements like billboard ads and branded vending machines that lend authenticity to the space and through the integration of products — from cars to mobile phones — into a game’s action. While this medium provides some guidance, media strategists should take a more concerted look at social network marketing. The environments are equally sacred to their users, and many of the same rules regarding a corporate presence there apply.

Give people the option of taking or leaving your message and enhance their experience in a substantive way, and you’ll likely be the recipient of a positive — though for the moment, tenuous — response. Get in the way of the activity they came for, and you’ll suffer the same consequences that plagued early blog advertisers who failed to learn an important lesson: it’s their world; we’re just advertising in it.

Related reading

Vector graphic of a megaphone spewing out business themed items, such as a laptop, tablet, pen, @ symbol and smartphone