Business in Virtual Worlds, Deep Thoughts, Virtual World Platforms

The Thinner the Client the Sweeter the Pie? Mapping Virtual Worlds for Brands

There’s a sweet spot somewhere out there for marketers, a dream space where that elusive beast the consumer (that means you and me, or maybe not, maybe it means Joe FlickrPack with his mySpace page and his Facebook widgets, but in any case), and the Electric Sheep Company are graphing it out and hunting it down.

And they’re on to something. Because what they’re trying to do is build a bridge from the vision and promise of the Metaverse to today – where it’s a lot messier looking, and the technology isn’t quite there yet, and the user base isn’t quite large enough, and the promise and hype of last year and the rush into Second Life was followed by….hmmm, well, it was followed by a rush into the promise and hype of Facebook widgets, or is it viral youTube videos like that bad hair lady, or are they now sniffing around Twitter?

The reality is that big brands are scrambling. All those old models and metrics are falling to the sidelines and we’re hearing words again like aggregating eyeballs, and there’s talk of curating brand experiences, and it’s all viral this and viral that, and the brands are scared, they’ve spent way too long perfecting a process for buying Superbowl commercials but hey, they won’t let this get away from them just yet and if you can walk into their offices with assurance and poise you might be able to pry open their wallets and throw some money towards something cool and some day they’ll wake up and actually GET what you’re talking about instead of just nodding a lot when you move your hands around quickly and look like a hippie.

The Assurance of Balance
So here’s the question. What do you do when you’ve hung your hat on the metaverse coat rack, but you were slightly ahead of your time, or you were ahead of the technology, or maybe you were in synch with the technology and time but it went zipping off in the direction of Facebook and widgets and mini games and Papervision?

Well, you map it, and put numbers around it, and this is reassuring, and kudos to ESC, because they’re helping to take away the anxiety of those brands who really want in, but were kind of spooked by abandoned sims, and bad press, and don’t want to place their bets on the wrong team, it’s far better to cover all the spots on the table, one of them is bound to pay off.

We’ll call it the sweet spot (or ESC will):

(Source: ESC)

Because its gotten more confusing not less. First, we were talking up virtual worlds, full immersion, deep experience, games with a difference, a vast collaborative be bop version of the Internet, people flying and living and wow, maybe even working in there, getting married, making a million in virtual real estate. But before anyone knew what had happened, the metaverse got a whole lot LARGER than it was, it just stopped being called Second Life.

So now what. The brand managers are in a cold sweat. There’s no way they’re getting yanked into large promises and small delivery, this time around they want a surer thing. And the sure things these days are games and social networks.

Remember all the press about Second Life? Seen all the press lately about social networks and Ning and Facebook and the billions in valuations and the little kid millionaires churning out widgets and launching, don’t know, personal media aggregators?

And games…well, we’ve seen the Wii, and the Wii is good because the Wii has senior citizens bowling!

Now there are some markets we can believe in. But what’s even better, is we can believe in those markets but get a jump start on the competition because we’re going to throw in a bit of that virtual world stuff for good measure, keep it fresh, although….hmm, problem….Second Life is bad blood and bad press and we need something a little, hmmm, safer.

And the problem is the learning curve (we’re told). And the problem is the client (we’re told…tooooo looooong to dowloaaaad). But there’s good news! Because the clients are getting thinner, and the worlds have more controls, and your brand is safe with us, we’ve seen the future and it’s not like the future we once saw, because the future is different now! It’s measurable! And it’s Web ready!

Walled Gardens Are Lonely Places for Brands
I’m not poking holes in the ESC strategy. They have it right.

I’ve been horribly confused about the concept of the Walled Garden but I’ve taken it to mean something like this – a walled garden is a virtual space where its integration with other Internet “stuff” is minimized.

World of Warcraft is a walled garden.

Um. Or isn’t.

See, that’s where I have a problem. Because no matter how hard they try, WoW ISN’T a walled garden. No space is, unless it’s so ineffective that you really don’t WANT any of it to seep out. But WoW tries really really hard to be a walled garden, it’s just that its users have other ideas, and they’re using voice, and they have fan sites, and they’re selling stuff, and they’re trading tips and maps and cheats.

OK, so maybe it’s a simplification. Maybe a walled garden isn’t the prevention of other stuff around a platform or environment its the preservation of the fiction within it. But my point is that there’s a tendency when people live their lives to compartmentalize, because we have to, but to also want to carry the cool stuff from one place to another.

And experiences are like that, and brands are like that too…brands don’t exist just in the store, they exist in all those other places in life that the brands are used. And brands look for ways to associate themselves with those other places, and with the cultures that thrive in them, and so ESC is playing to the tendency of brands to want to cross-integrate their messages across a variety of media and platform, reaching specific cultures and buyers and users, and that means a) not throwing all your eggs into the “one world” basket and b) trying to find the worlds where the cool kids are, or at least where your brand is going to ‘resonate’ and ‘go viral’ and all those other things that everyone really really hopes means selling more stuff because otherwise there’s going to be a lot of widgets lying around a year from now.

So if you’re going to make a branding play in virtual worlds, you can’t just stop at the doors of the metaverse, you’re going to need some Web stuff, and some stuff stuff, and it’s going to be as much about communities and fun and socializing as it is about technology.

Which also tells you something else. Because if you follow the logic of all that through, you’re going to start thinking like a brand person, and start getting starry eyed at these brand advocates and early adopters and tipping pointers and viral engineers and, hmmm, maybe want MORE of it, and more CONTROL of it, and so you might start building your own.

I mean….100 worlds for kids? Good luck. You can maybe get 3 hit movies out of kids a year. Or a handful of hot video game titles. And there’s usually one “must have” toy at Christmas.

We’re looking at a future with 1,000 virtual worlds for 1,000 brands, not to mention 10,000 widgets, and these things, my friends, are next year’s abandoned sims.

It’s Not About Time and Technology, It’s About Expression and Control
The ESC has put a nice spin on things. And it’s healthy, and it’s a good way to explain to the marketing guys that virtual worlds are still relevant, because they exist in an ecosystem of social networks and games, and those are hot things, and spend your money wisely, do cross-platform, integrated, measurable, tightly knit stuff.

And if they do that, and everyone gets comfortable again because some agency wins a Cannes Lion award, then that’s good news for the metaverse, because the technology will advance, and in the meantime the real work is being done by the little people. And the schools. And businesses. And Amazon and Google and Microsoft and, well, the games.

Because in the meantime, what’s happening is that while everyone frets about technology, and social networks and widgets, there’s a shift thats happened and that continues to be (in my opinion) best expressed in Second Life (and increasingly a few of the “collateral” open source worlds, and less so in the more contained and controlled worlds like and Multiverse).

And the shift is into ever-increasing tools for self expression. And the shift is into ever more control in the hands of those pesky users. And here’s a “counter” model (P.S. this is called a “mash-up” I think):

But what does it mean for brands? Because it looks on the surface like the sweet spot, that place in the middle, is probably still safest (and by the way, um, this is just a brainstorm not some scientifically precise map), so if you’re a brand maybe you’re best off with some social games and maybe a locked down Web-based world.

Consumers of the Creators
But I sort of wonder. If we learned anything from last year’s testing of the Second Life waters by the big brands it’s that before you know it the technology either didn’t advance like you hoped it might. Or even worse, the people whose eyeballs you were trying to aggregate had their own ideas.

And my theory is that we’re not all creators. Some of us just want to be passive, or passive participants. But that increasingly the things that we want to participate in have wider modalities of expression and far less control by others.

American Idol takes us way down the scale on self expression in a tightly controlled package. YouTube takes us down the scale in another way, taking off the controls all together and making us all judges and consumers of expression.

So while the brands waffle around in the middle, struggling for some control and dolloping out some tools for expression, most of them still sort of believe that it’s about consuming media and not creating it. They see the masses of consumers, and don’t believe that those kids poking around with Garage Band or those artists mashing prims together in Second Life are REALLY the people they need to be talking to. They have agencies after all! Agencies are FILLED with creative types.

But I’m not sure it’s going to turn out that way.

Maybe this really is the cusp of a renaissance. And maybe there’s more going on than a bunch of new platforms that we need to put on a graph and nod over. The graphs are great in the short term. They’re assuring. They’re like a kind hand on the shoulder as we sign that check.

But while we’ve been nodding and plotting, the graphs slipped a few notches to the side, and we find ourselves recalculating stuff all over again.


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