by: Gary Hayes

Will the “Avatar Based Marketing’ initiatives be a tsunami that will break down the fourth wall of Second Life for most, and in the process end the growth of premium subscribers many who use the world for other things besides doing enhanced duplicates of their first lives.

The shared virtual online world Second Life is at a crucial time in its life. On one hand it is going through obvious expansion pains, falling down technically and regularly, with weekly 50MB updates and on the other hand the dropping of the metaphoric castle drawbridge and its approach to allow anyone and everyone to join without ID (one that has forced Snapzilla a SL flickr to protest by going offline). The other main area of expansion though that could truly prove its demise is to allow unfettered influence from real world marketing. The panel (in-world last night) that looked at marketing and advertising in Second Life actually occurred when most people in Australia were in bed but I took a look at the transcript on Brands in Games just now and was quite dismayed.

Most of the discussion was about brand, advertising, getting virtual eyeballs on your product and selling Real World items off the back of SL exposure. Business, business, business - how to use the world to get most impact. Not one suggestion that perhaps many people use Second Life to escape from the endless blitzkrieg of brand pushing in the real world. The reason World of Warcraft is so successful is that it is one place you can get away from the endless advertising that we see in the real world. We know that commercial free to air tv is more and more irrelevant to young people (see my post Ambient TV, Immersive MMORPG) - because it adopts a one to many approach, broadcasting bland generalistic ads that only resonate with an aging audience. Young people need to play, be social, be immersed and certainly have personalized targeted brand experiences (as I have mentioned in many posts before) on their terms. Second Life has an important decision, be driven by corporate business or large numbers of users paying smaller amounts and who have more to do. To simplify - 5 times $10 million is the same as 10 million times $5.

There was a suggestion in the talk that Second Life’s growth may now actually depend on the big brands to support it and move it forward - the advertising sponsored virtual world. This would work in a free-to-join environment BUT there are two classes of citizens in SL and if a commercially-funded-free-to-join policy is adopted perhaps Linden Labs could consider paying back all those on premium accounts - or at least taking away the tiers many have paid to get LLabs to where it is at the moment. Here are some quotes that reinforce the above…

Hamlet Au: I think Second Life has long passed the days where it was a hothouse utopia where any hint of the outside world, especially the corporate for-profit world, causes much of a ripple. Now the challenge is to create cool, lasting, *exciting* experiences–and the companies are competing on an equal level with the best creators in SL.

Yes Hamlet forget the many new entrants to SL are escaping from commercial TV and real world malls. The only real suggestion to keep mainland SL free from RL influence was to make sure that they stay on Islands and invite people to their wonderful interactive, brand-washing experiences.

Cristiano Midnight: Well, to expand on what Tony said, I do think that each environment is different and more or less viable for various reasons SL, I think, presents the most comprehensive environment to explore this issue in. No other environment I can think of offers the depth of content creation that SL does. That said, I think any company that comes along and does not understand the environment and just treats it as another marketing venue is doomed to fail. I think, for example, the way that American Apparel has entered SL has been a very interesting and effective thing - I knew nothing of their company beforehand, and the clothes are actual clothes I would wear on my avatar. So at least marketing to me, they were quite effective — I would be more inclined to explore their RL offerings as well.

Ah so that’s the driver. Getting those avatar drivers (the participants) to be wowed by product/brand and go into real world malls and make purchases. I personally think a nonsense campaign (as Anya pointed out some time ago) - Second Life products are cheap and help build build peoples escapist narrative in-world, people do not buy a branded dress in second life for $3US and are then tempted to get the real thing for $3000, or even a t-shirt for 50c and a real one for $30, it will not happen. The only thing that really works is brand extension - that in your immersed mode, the brand can seep into your subconcious, so that when your in the real world buying mode and it becomes a choice between two items (that you can afford) that brand seed sown in SL takes effect.

Back to my main sticking point. I do not want to pay the high fees that Linden Lab charges to be forced to bump into endless commercial real world brands on my travels through SL. This is restricking my and others story world - and as I mentioned in my comments to the Universal Music event on Clickable Culture site - I truly believe there is a shared narrative in SL that is being eroded by 1) new members who have no ‘personal investment’ and use the service like a cool IM client (who land in ‘your created’ world and chat as if they are in the local US mall and do not invest in any role play - which is irrelevant to them) and 2) external brand extenders. This was completely overlooked in the panel last night - this is not a free service, this is not advertising supported free to use yet - for the medium size land owners certainly who have easily put in a base of over $200 each plus $25 plus a month. Perhaps thats the way it will go. You can imagine the next 750 000 users entering second life. All of them on free accounts. They have no where to go apart from shopping malls, camping chairs (places you sit to earn tiny amounts of money and generate passing traffic) and of course branded experiences - however that may pan out? I will leave the only sane words to Hamlet AU who identified the dangers for SL and all MMORPGs who saturate their worlds with external brands:

Online worlds very much involve social contracts in the sense meant by Nozick and Rawls, to cite two great Harvard alums. And creating a world that’s ideal for marketers *and* its subscribers is a matter of finding a balance between Nozick’s libertarian society and Rawls’ free society with government assistance (i.e., the company in this case.) So when the social contract fails or becomes too restrictive, the dangers emerge. As we see in Cristiano’s decision to close down his Snapzilla today, very much the Flickr of Second Life, in protest of Linden Lab’s recent changes to the billing policy. This is actually a good thing for the vibrancy of the world, just like the tax revolt of three years ago was. Hopefully LL and the residents will strike a compromise between their interests. The larger moral for marketers is to understand in online worlds, especially user-created worlds like this one, the consumer is also the creator, and you have to work with them together on creating a worthwhile experience.

Just as YouTube, Flickr and MySpace are finding it difficult to introduce marketing into them, SL which is a user generated site in effect, may find a mass exodus if it doesnt concentrate on the social aspects of the world vs the fast buck from allowing brands to invade with no recourse to the current ‘paying’ residents and its ridiculous new attitude that anyone can join the party - without effective identification or orientation. Perhaps SL will become just like the world of Bladerunner, a ground level under-class of non-paying citizens, being bombarded by advertising and living in an ugly, mafia driven, anarchistic community and on the upper level a paying over-class, living in sky platforms, out of reach of that underclass, avoiding the marketing and living their fantasies - oh, just realised this is Second Life already

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