Real Marketing, Virtual People

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How do you market a product in a world where people can do almost anything, be almost anyone, and create almost anything they can imagine? The massively multiplayer online game Second Life, which has its own internal economy, is such a world. On Friday June 23rd, a handful of people involved in advertising and marketing within Second Life met on a private island run by Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society to discuss just that. And not just any island. The Berkman Center island is 3d reproduction within Second Life of the real Berkman Center at Harvard.

“When I went to this conference center that they had created, it was incredible,” said panelist Raz Schionning (Second Life name: Razor Rinkitink), director of web services for American Apparel as he described his virtual experience, “I’ve done lecturing before, and you step up in front of a room and you see a lot of people out there, and there’s lights, there’s a microphone. There’s a certain feeling—excitement or intimidation, or whatever you might have looking out at the audience as you get ready to speak. If you’re sitting in front of your keyboard, you probably wouldn’t have any of that. But it was remarkably realistic. It really felt like a conference.”

In the June issue of the Harvard Business Review, senior editor Paul Hemp (SL: Hempman Richard) wrote an article called “Avatar-Based Marketing.” His article examines marketing and advertising, and how it applies to the virtual personas (called avatars) people create for themselves in environments like instant messagers and chat programs to full-blown 3D digital worlds like Second Life. In order to take things one step further, Hemp, along with Rodica Buzescu (SL: Ansible Berkman), coordinator for all of the Berkman Center’s activities within Second Life, organized the Second Life marketing panel. “It covered a gamut of topics ’cause, especially now there’s a lot of big companies circling this space as the next realm to advertise,” said panelist W. James Au (SL: Hamlet Au), Second Life journalist and blogger.

The Sandbox Economy
Second Life’s society is based on creating, buying, selling, and marketing virtual objects. Every Second Life user has access to 3D modeling and scripting tools to create their own clothing, machines, buildings, vehicles, whatever. They also retain intellectual property rights for anything they create.

Players in the game use Second Life’s in-game currency called, Linden Dollars, to buy and sell their creations. L$250 is worth about $1 USD. Second Life’s economic connection with the outside world means that it’s entirely possible to run a real business entirely within the game. According to Au, there are thousands of Second Lifers doing just that. “When I say a few thousand, that’s the estimated amount of people who make over 20,000 US dollars a year by buying and selling user content.”

And where there are goods to sell, there will always be advertising and marketing services to sell those goods. “There’s already an active thriving advertising industry in Second Life like…billboards [and] a lot of viral advertising,”said James Au. “Fashion tends to be the most popular item to buy. The fashion designer will get their friends to wear their clothing and go to the cooler nightclubs and stuff to build up an audience.”

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