Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Second Life

Virtual Worlds and Brands: Spin or Win, and Why They’ll Come Back for More

Brands came to virtual worlds, they left, we griped, we moved on – and now they’re all hanging out track side in Need for Speed or trying to get posters up in Ironforge or something – I’m waiting for the day that you can buy Coke in Darnassus, except maybe some kind of relic Coke, one with special powers, given out the same day as the Superbowl because what geek wouldn’t be in WoW instead of being athletic with the remote.

Someone told me that Reuben Steiger would be a lightning rod by appearing on yesterday’s Metanomics but I didn’t quite get it. I mean, this stuff about the brands coming and the brands going happened years ago, right?

Crap’s Flickr Stream

I thought Dizzy Banjo summed it up nicely in response to my previous post on the topic of metaverse agencies and virtual worlds:

“I think its a shame to think of the 06/07 period as a regret. That was a period of people trying to do something very hard – make a virtual place pay for itself in real world terms. Those projects deserve respect for trying this and indeed finding out many things that don’t work, as well as many that do.

Applying the Gartner hype cycle to just the adoption of Second Life is an incorrect reflection on the larger development of virtual worlds. When considered along that 30 year time-frame, the peak of inflated expectations and trough of disillusionment are just a little blip, similar to many before.”

But there’s something…maybe a feeling of abandonment, about the Reubens of the world heading off to try to make sense of the metaverse in other ways: it’s like losing one of your own, maybe, or a longing for the time when it really did seem like the whole thing might crack open and the rest of the world would understand what it feels like to mediate community, content and connection through an avatar in a 3D world – I mean, it beats being poked again in Facebook, seems to me.

Radar picked up what seemed to be the mood in back chat:

“What I see from all these companies is that they all wanted to drag real world, big money corporations into SL screaming and kicking, and in the process of trying to do this, they not only sold these guys the hype, they believed it themselves. I guess that’s good, because that way they weren’t intentionally lying about the ROI of going into SL for advertising purposes, but lying they were nonetheless. Even I can see that even now, and certainly during the hype phase, that there just were not the kind of numbers needed to be successful on the kind of scale companies like that needed to be successful on. It just was not going to happen.”

Who’s Got the Brains?
But there was a counter current: the one about Reuben being a pretty smart guy. Prok called him a genius, I think. This new stuff he’s doing, setting himself up to be a good old fashioned talent agent of virtual identities – now, that’s pretty sharp, maybe a ‘long future’ kind of thing but some day you might be looking at the Michael Ovitz of the Metaverse, or at least the Michael Ovitz before he went nuts and his ego blew his head off. And when he talks about stories, he’s touching something important, I just wish he hadn’t been so distracted with the back chat yesterday, because it sort of muffled what he was trying to say.

So if Reuben is so smart, and those agencies that brought in the brands, and if we’re all waving pitch forks and telling them to get out of town with their snake oil and charms, then who’s the fool? Us? The brands? The media?

See, I think everyone’s got a brain in there somewhere – my problem isn’t with individuals, generally, it’s with institutions, and herd mentalities, and sure, there is, and was a lot of that going around, especially with the Garnter Hype Cycle, which is one of those consultant things which are really expensive “Patently Obvious Dressed-Up PowerPoint Slides Constantly Referenced” that drives me nuts, just like Gladwell drives me nuts (please please someone de-meme Malcolm).

But I don’t understand this stuff about everything being over-hyped with agencies selling… well…they were over-selling I guess is the point (which, in Reuben’s defence, he admitted to being partly responsible for, which struck me as a reasonably honest thing to say). And I don’t understand it because it seems to partly ignore the realities of who was buying, and why, and how these things really work.

Agencies and Brands are Not the Same Thing
This is an ad man.

Ad men spend their client’s money. The way that they spend that money is by selling one big, large, research-appended, storyboarded and focus grouped strategy. Give me a couple million bucks and several months later, I’ll come back to you with something like “Coke is It” or “Just Do It”. Strange as it sounds – but that’s pretty much it. That’s the strategy. Everything else falls from that umbrella theme.

Your target audience becomes evident from it (and is based on researching them with all kinds of fancy tools and metrics and consumption data and buying habits and trend-spotting and whatever else). Your designs and tone and visuals come from it.

And what also comes from it is a budget – and the ad man traditionally takes a big cut out of where you PLACE your money. Usually a percentage of television spend or magazine ads or whatever. The rest of it: the interactive, and the coupons and the direct mail is actually extraordinarily messy for the ad man. It’s a hassle, they do it but don’t want to, and frankly it’s often an after-thought assigned to some junior at some little sister agency up in Minneapolis or something.

Now, the way this works is that the client – say it’s Nike – they have brand managers, and those guys and gals oversee the agencies, and make some decisions, and sit around on the set where the TV ad is being shot eating really expensive donuts and telling the director that the star of the commercial doesn’t look like they’re sweating enough, or their shoes aren’t gleaming the right way.

The thing is, in all of this, it’s hardly the president of Nike sitting around worrying about an investment in some campaign in Second Life. In 2007, Nike’s global ad budget was $1.7 BILLION dollars. You think that even if their spend in Second Life was a million dollars, say….that this really MATTERS to anyone? That it’s a central part of their plan to sell shoes?

It’s a line item, inside another line item, assigned to some junior guy, outsourced to a metaverse agency, who report in to someone in RESEARCH who’s in charge of metrics.

I’m exaggerating – but not by much. The client barely even knows they’re IN Second Life. The AGENCY barely knows. It’s a little bet, made on the side, or because someone saw Business Week and decided that it would be cool to check out, cut a check, bury it inside the larger interactive campaign that was linked to the Superbowl ad or the viral youTube thing that the guys out in California pitched over white wine and sushi when the VP of Marketing was out that way last talking about how much his son was in love with his Playstation.

It May Look Like Advertising but It Isn’t
OK. So that’s the usual agency way of the world. Someone comes up with the great idea to buy an ad on the boards at Madison Square Gardens. Or to build a little island in Second Life. Or to sponsor product give-aways in Habbo Hotel. Most of these decisions are one of two things: they’re either highly measured, and are fed into these very complex models for reach and brand impressions and cost per million. OR, it’s someone’s hot idea, and he’s the creative director and he’s, well, creative, so we’d better listen to him, or at least amuse him a little.

I mean – half the time the target audience for things like what happened in Second Life is NOT the end customer, believe it or not: it’s investors, it’s internal stakeholders, it’s distributors, it’s sales people, it’s HR.

Sometimes what looks like an ad campaign really isn’t: it’s a way for a company to get the word out that it’s a cool place to work. Or to communicate to impatient investors stuff like “don’t worry, we’re not some stodgy old company, we’re COOL, we’re in VIDEO games, we’re in the METAVERSE! so jack our share price up please, we promise to try not to be so yesteryear.”

Coke folks get happy in Cannes

Believe me. because this is true: vast sums of money have been spent on campaigns or programs or initiatives that never see the light of day, but were created solely so that the president of the company would have a cool slide to show at their annual meeting. Or, on the flip side – so that an ad agency would have something cool to say at the annual awards show in Cannes to their colleagues, because these people are incredibly competitive, and nothing says “I’m better” than “I’ve done something you HAVEN’T.”

Does that mean it didn’t work? No. It just means that we need to be careful assuming what the metrics were: very often, they’re not quite what they seem.

The Bigger Bet is Figuring Out How to Cover Your Butt When the Sky Is Falling
But back to Reuben. And Sibley for that matter, or Justin, or all the other people who were the early pioneers of virtual worlds: back to you, in fact. Because you’re interested in virtual worlds, and you get that there’s something ELSE going on. That this isn’t just about creating a game, or being broadcast to…but that the ecosystem of virtual worlds is becoming the largest platform for communal story-telling the world has ever known.

And you get the importance of that. And you know that what’s so disappointing, what’s so irritating, is that the brands came, and they went, and you just wish they had learned. That the broadcast era may be lingering around, but there’s a new co-reality: one in which the consumers not only consume those packaged brand things, but they also consume each OTHERS’ work. And aspire to be co-creators in their personal narratives.

And personally? I think Reuben and gang get that too. Creating virtual Elvis goods isn’t JUST about trying to attach known brands to 3D objects, it’s about creating environments for the fulfillment of aspirations – without questioning whether Elvis is a decent aspiration, I guess…but acknowledging that most of us WON’T be content creators, but sure want to be the authors of our own stories, and don’t mind a little help from the outside frankly, especially if it’s done well, and we can relate, and we can maintain some control over the narrative.

See – the brands may have been following a hype cycle, or spin, or inflated expectations. But I believe that they did so in part out of pure fear.

The ad man above was a success because he came up with those strategy things. Like “Think Small” was his. And all he had to do was slap it on a magazine ad, make a TV commercial, and go for lunch.

Now, he’d be bewildered even trying to FIND his audience. They’re not watching as much TV anymore, they’re all on youTube and Facebook and mySpace and text messaging their friends and playing computer games and whatever happened to the kinds of ratings you saw for the final episode of M*A*S*H anyways?

Too bad they didn’t allow ads on the back bleachers at the Inauguration – it was about as close as you come these days to a mass audience – and even the Superbowl is only as good as all the media coverage ABOUT the ads, because everyone’s getting a beer when they actually play on TV anyways.

The brand experiments of a few years ago weren’t failures. They were experiments that were attempts to understand and adapt to new realities: to figure out ways in which those traditional ad men could team up with interactive agencies and create stories that crossed platforms, that perhaps started to tackle the problem of the consumer who wants control over when, where and how to consume media, and, sure, to make damn sure that they didn’t miss out on the next big thing.

Was it hype? Sure. Did the results pay off for the sponsors? My bet is yes.

Did it benefit Second Life or virtual worlds in general? Well, yes, and no.

You tell me: name an innovative platform that truly benefited from the arrival of the brands, of the mass media? It wasn’t Nike that built Amazon. Usually, they’re just playing catch-up, or trying to get in early because they know it’s important, they have shareholders to impress, staff to excite, annual reports to fill – but the metrics aren’t sales, not the first time around, anyways.

Eventually, maybe they’ll get it – Lego World and Barbie World and Coke World, maybe, will each stake their claim to the metaverse. Who knows what it will look like – even their presence in games is evolving, and not making sense, again – early days, even Google was trying to get into the act for a while there.

But their arrival and departure was a badge of honour for virtual worlds, in my opinion. Brands come to new technologies, they fail, they create chaos in their wake, and the people left behind generally just get on with it, plug away with innovations that aren’t just new bells and whistles but are, potentially, game changers. The brands will come back because when the game is changed they have no choice. And they’ll adapt, they’ll make their own games, or they’ll keep plugging away at Superbowl ads, and we’ll keep waiting to buy a Coke in Ironforge.


Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.