There has been a lot of buzz about online avatars recently, particular their potential as a new marketing… well, what? Channel? Tool? Demographic? Where do avatars fit into the marketing picture, really? What does it mean to market to an avatar? Is this a new way to reach the same net-connected consumer we focus all our various campaigns towards? Or is marketing to a consumer’s digital representation something entirely different? And if so, is it even worth our time to venture into territory so uncharted and new?
To begin answering all these questions, we should start by defining what an avatar actually is. While even ubiquitous online tools like AOL instant messenger and Yahoo groups have been called avatar mediums since they offer users the option to create a representative pic or cartoon of themselves to add some semblance of character to their words on the screen, these kinds of representations are more icons than avatars. To consider an avatar as a whole new entity worthy of marketing to, they need to have a little more meat, so to speak. Avatars tend to be built from the ground up around some template, which creates a process that taps into their user’s creativity. This process engages multiple levels of the user’s psyche and sense of self.
As Philip Rosedale, founder and CEO of Linden Lab (the creators of Second Life) noted, avatars should be considered more than just an online representation, they are an online projection. Acknowledging these points, this article will consider an avatar to be a user-created online self that is projected by their user into a virtual world.
Deepening this virtual sense of self is the fact that users are usually required to spend some kind of earned online currency to create a truly unique avatar for themselves. For example, in the kids-oriented virtual community Whyville, users need to play a variety of educational games to earn a salary of the in-world currency, clams. These clams can then be taken to a variety of user-created shops to purchase face parts. The cooler your face parts, the cooler your avatar, and thus, the cooler you are in the virtual town of Whyville. The truly industrious kids save up enough clams (a staggering 15,000) to purchase the ultimate avatar customization/status symbol in Whyville, a Scion xB. Now that’s engagement with a brand.
Speaking of engagement, let us now consider these online projections of self alongside people’s desire to use culturally significant symbols and designs to customize their self or appearance (otherwise known as fashion). Aligning ourselves with brands or cultural properties is one of the most prevalent forms of expression available. It is also one of the most effective kinds of advertising going.