Marketing to Virtual Me

If you lost your laptop or your hard drive crashed, what would you do?

  1. Consider it an upgrade opportunity, and order the latest model for overnight delivery.
  2. You’re one of those rare (some would say compulsive) people who perform a backup every evening, so it wouldn’t concern you much.
  3. Realize some or all of your personal finances, customer lists, confidential company information, and personal identity information have possibly been compromised. After an initial panic attack, you call the police and implore them to issue an APB in 10 surrounding counties.
  4. Understand life as you know it just came to an end. Contemplate joining a Buddhist monastery.

If the prospect of loosing your laptop or PDA is synonymous with loosing a part of yourself, you’re probably what I described last time as someone who is “being virtual.” The computer isn’t just a tool for work, communication, and entertainment. It’s also where you keep detailed personal information and much of your history. E-mail, letters, pictures, and movies increasingly reside on our computers. The PC is a multichannel communications tool, as well as a tool for many forms of creative expression. It’s an ever-growing repository of the fragments of our lives.

The reality, like it or not, is we are becoming tethered to our digital assistants — laptops, PDAs, smart phones, and their derivatives. Our personal computers are extensions of ourselves. They’re very intimate portrayals of who we are, portrayals we aren’t comfortable sharing publicly or with commercial entities without explicit permission and control.

Witness the recent hoopla over Paris Hilton’s Sidekick being compromised. Put the ditsy socialite angle aside. It resonated with people because it’s easy to relate to losing your own electronic address book or personal digital pictures.

Yet it isn’t mere information storage that creates the special relationship between us and our PCs.

Our computers have become portals to virtual worlds where we spend big chunks of our lives. In these worlds, our virtual personas and related information may or may not reflect physical reality. In many cases, virtual personas are designed for the very purpose of masking and hiding the real person. We increasingly have multiple online personas. They may be as simple as multiple email and IM addresses, or pseudonyms we use to participate in online discussions or to publish blogs.

If you as marketers want to communicate with virtual me, you must become part of my virtual world. And the virtual world operates with different rules than the physical one. “Telling and selling” is frowned upon, “listening and learning” is applauded. I expect full control over who I engage with in the virtual world, and I don’t like being interrupted. I seek answers to my questions and search for information when I need it. I determine with whom I want to have connections.

In the virtual channel, we have greater control than ever before over how we look to marketers and advertisers. Physical addresses may be a good indicator of net worth and purchasing power, but in the virtual world marketers may not know physical addresses. They only know user names. It’s up to the user how much information he choose to reveals.

Why should I tell you marketers who I really am? Do you need to know? Interrupt me with unsolicited or intrusive messages, and you’re sure to get on my blacklist. Offer contextually relevant information and help, and you’ll be invited back. More important, I may choose to share personal information that helps you better understand who I am and what I like so you can contextualize your messages and make them relevant to my needs.

This relevance imperative forms the basis for all marketing and communications to virtual me. Relevance makes good sense for traditional marketing too, but in the virtual world it becomes imperative. Unless you accept and internalize the relevance imperative, you’ll lose your ability to reach those who are being virtual — a large and growing segment.

Living on a laptop or PDA is about untethering from a physical location. It’s also about controlling how the world sees us. The control to define our virtual personas coupled with the importance of the virtual channel is a major power shift. To engage with virtual beings, you must play by virtual world’s rules. That rulebook hasn’t yet been written, but it’s taking shape. The golden rule: virtual me makes the rules.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.