Virtual Advertising in a Virtual World

Virtual worlds have been getting a lot of press lately. “BusinessWeek” recently published a fascinating cover story on the whole thing. It sounds like a MMORPG (define) with at least one major exception: there’s not really an objective as you’d find in a game.

I’ve never participated in one of these worlds, so I don’t speak from any firsthand experience. The closest I got to actually getting involved was playing a demo of “The Sims” years ago. It kept my attention for about 30 minutes, and I never went back. I just couldn’t get into it. It seemed to be about the most boring parts of real life. Isn’t gaming about escapism? The freedom to do things you can’t do in real life, be it fragging your college roommate for hitting on your real-world girlfriend or crawling up walls and slinging webs as Spider-Man.

Clearly I’m missing something. There are a lot of people in worlds like “Second Life” (one of the hottest virtual worlds and the focus of the “BusinessWeek” piece), and they’re a fascinating abstraction of the real world. “Second Life” has spawned its own commercial economy, with a connection to real-world dollars and cents. Enterprising players auction off land and equipment on eBay and make decent money at it. It seemed incredible that this virtual construct could actually produce its own real-world economy. And it still seems just a little crazy.

The world has its own currency. A quick browse through “Second Life’s” classifieds page shows lots of great stuff for sale: lightsabers, sports cars, sexy clothing for your avatar, an assortment of adult toys, furniture, and even real estate — anything from a condo to a plot of land on a secluded island! There are even people who have quit their real-world jobs to pursue virtual businesses. Can’t make it in whatever career interests you in the real world? Give it a go in a virtual world!

Virtual worlds such as this seem to be a natural extension of other digital media trends. It strikes me as the ultimate combination of user-generated content and social networking — except you’re not just creating videos, posting profiles, and communicating via email or IM. Participants basically create an entire society within the construct of the game. It’s not just building cities and suburbs and businesses. Organizers try to establish the right balance of control and freedom. They seem to want it to be open; to allow people to be innovative and entrepreneurial. But they also acknowledge the need for rules and laws, if for no other reason than to be fair to all other participants. Creators wrestle with big-time socio-political issues, such as needing to create land and ownership laws. They struggle with transportation systems and suburban sprawl. The owners and participants alike are concerned with asymmetry, a growing divide between enterprising avatars who have become successful and those who are less fortunate. Creating a brave new world isn’t easy.

The innovation is remarkable. As soon as you enable people to buy land and build structures, there’s a need for skills like architecture and design, specializations and services that other participants are willing to pay for. When you enable people to create and capture things that go on in the world, very quickly you’ve got movies that are written, produced, and filmed, all within the confines of the virtual world.

Advertisers are also relatively quick to experiment. The first agency was launched inside “Second Life.”” over a year ago. You think we’ve got problems with standardization, tracking, and reporting on advertising in the real (albeit digital) world? What do ads look like in a virtual world? How do you track impressions? Can ads be served by a third party? Are they interactive? Maybe we can make “Minority Report” style personalized video walls real in the virtual world before they’re built in real life. I see an opportunity to create an avatar and launch a virtual equivalent of the IAB.

Clearly, I’m being a little facetious here. Most marketing experimentation to date has been product placement, integration, and virtual stores. But it’s an interesting landscape that’s definitely worth keeping an eye on. Advergaming is poised for growth. And with the explosion of user-generated content and social networking in general, virtual worlds just may be marching along in step.

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