Marketers And Virtual Worlds: Still More Questions Than Answers


Media Post Publications

 by Tameka Kee, Friday, Mar 14, 2008 7:00 AM ET

FOR SOME BRANDS, HARNESSING THE power of virtual worlds–or even just the idea of crafting a marketing campaign focused on one–is an immobilizing prospect.


“Enterprises are still getting used to working with social networks where they can’t control what users say or do with the brand,” said Ed Moran, Deloitte Services’ director of product innovation for technology, media and communications. “So when you introduce the idea of a game or virtual world, it’s difficult for them to accept.”

Still, the promise and popularity of virtual worlds is undeniable. This year, about a third of the more than 34 million child and teen Internet users in the U.S. will visit virtual worlds at least once a month, according to eMarketer–and though mainstream frenzy over properties like Club Penguin, Second Life and others has died down, marketers are still hungry for answers about how to effectively use them to reach kids and adults.

So at McGraw Hill’s Media Summit New York on Thursday, Moran and other executives pieced together a three-step roadmap for marketers in search of virtual world success.

First, don’t get bogged down in the planning stage–and don’t bring too many talking heads to the table. “Getting a huge committee together is a guarantee for a mediocre product,” said Matt Bostwick, senior vice president of franchise development, MTV Music Group. “You should start out with a small group of passionate, dedicated people that have support at the C-level, but can just get out there and create a vision.”

Bostwick said that when his team planned to launch the Virtual Hills and Virtual Pimp My Ride properties in conjunction with Gaia Online, they knew that the higher-level executives would have deemed the platform too juvenile. “So we just did it, came back and showed them the sponsorships and user numbers, and they said: ‘We can’t argue with what the audience wants,'” Bostwick said.

Don’t go it alone–it’s better to partner with a firm that has already invested the millions of dollars on R&D and support. For example, Sony’s upcoming massively multiplayer online (MMO) game “Free Realms” has racked up about $25 million in costs, including marketing and development, according to John Needham, CFO and senior vice president, Sony Online Entertainment.

According to Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia Online, it’s hard to start from scratch. “We spent $35 million to get started and an average of $25 million on an annual basis to maintain Gaia,” Sherman said. “But if someone wants to do something with us, they only have to spend a fraction of that.” Sherman said that partnerships and campaigns on Gaia typically ran in the $100,000-$500,000 range.

And lastly, be prepared to fail. “You don’t just create a branded world or launch a sponsorship and let it sit there,” Bostwick said. “You don’t know until you try what the actual response is going to be.”

Sherman agreed. “It’s about how you react to the data,” he said. “You build it, test it and find out what happens. A lot of the people who did stuff in Second Life learned things even if it wasn’t ‘successful’ by traditional standards.”




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