Last Word on Avatar-Based Marketing

Posted on Saturday 1 July 2006

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Seems like a long time ago now, but about a week ago I received word from Paul Hemp, senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, informing me of a virtual discussion scheduled to take place inside Second Life. Some of you might recall Mr. Hemp’s recent article, “Avatar-Based Marketing”, about which I posted last month (reLink). Anyway, I made some time to attend and at least several other bloggers have since covered the discussion – most notably Ilya Vedrashko over on the MIT Advertising Lab/Brands in Games blogs (Link), and Wagner James Au over on the New World Notes blog (Link).

A couple of things I’d say at this late point is that the transcripts I’ve read aren’t actually complete; they’ve been cleaned up and parts have been removed. That’s the problem with texting inside a simulation: not everyone knows to what it is that someone else might be referring when a comment is made out of order (and most are). I suspect the raw log is posted somewhere, but I didn’t read everything all that closely since I was at the thing and don’t need the rehash. The bigger issue, however, is communication. And I mean communication on a much broader scale. Think internationally; think culturally. In a virtual world that spans global borders, communication on a variety of levels – including marketing – becomes a different and more complex endeavor.

In addition, I get the sense that there is going to be a disconnect between what some researchers report and what’s really going on inside these new worlds. For anyone who has followed my own blog entries, you’ve probably read at least once that for me one of the surprising things is how deep the immersion can get… even if the visuals aren’t all that sophisticated. That sense of immersion was the point of my last comment that you’ll find in the transcripts (should you read them). If not, here’s the primary exchange:

In Kenzo: Good timing, too. I have a conference call in 15 minutes with a potential new partner. They know NOTHING of SL. My question regards how to explain the possibilities here in just a few words on a phone call….

Csven Concord: When I explain that to someone, I ask them if they’ve ever seen on the News a story with a 911 call and if they felt … touched or affected by the voice. That’s television – a passive medium – giving the viewer something less connected to them than what they’ll have in here. It’s difficult to comprehend, but seeing how we react to other “virtual” things helps.

That last bit becomes an issue for many academians and researchers. Just exactly how far will they allow themselves to become immersed; to be affected?

Not so long ago an acquaintance of mine inside Second Life, who’s real life identity is known to other residents, confessed an attraction for me (undoubtedly minor). We’ve never met. And while flattered, the real point is that this could not have been a casual thing for this person, because for them there is no refuge in anonymity. The same applies to those who take their professional lives inside virtual worlds as Mr. Hemp and others have done. Will they say or do something that might be inappropriate? Will it reflect on their real lives? How deeply immersed can someone become if they’re concerned about such things? Will they even get an “alt” and explore these other possibilities? This is where I suspect there will be a disconnect, because I’m not sure they all will. Watch for it. That disconnect could be very interesting.

{Image Copyright © 2006 Wagner James Au}

  1.  
    Hempman Richard/Paul Hemp
    7/2/2006 | 10:51 am
     

    Wow, Sven. As usual, you have a way of clearing a conceptual path that runs at a tangent to the road usually taken and therefore reaches a particularly interesting destination. I have to admit – and you and others know my real-life identity – that I’m attracted to your mind!

    You raise a really interesting point about students of virtual worlds and their detachment from the phenomenon they set out to study. But couldn’t the same be said of any scientific endeavor, that (in most cases, Timothy Leary being one exception!) the researchers are observers rather than participants? And that this may be a good thing? They have to rely on surveys and conversations and observation to gauge the experiences of the “study participants,” but they also preserve the perspective that allows them to make sense of what they see. Another way of thinking about this: By staying once removed from the experience, they help prevent themselves becoming subject to the (Heisenberg principle?), that is, having their actions affected by the fact that they are not only studying a phenomenon but part of the phenomenon being studied.

    (Keep in mind that I’m talking off the top of my head here and may be way off base. )

    ON THE OTHER HAND:

    Look what gonzo journalism, which replaces ostensible journalistic objectivity with intentional subjectivity, has done in broadening our understanding of realitiy.

    So… you may have an interesting and valid point!

  2.  
    7/2/2006 | 12:04 pm
     

    It may indeed be a good thing.

    Sometimes the best way to define something is by noting its differences from the familiar (no duh, huh?). That “disconnect” is where some useful information will most likely be derived and why I’ll be watching for it.

    I do however believe that those on the “outside” will miss something of practical use and wonder if they’ll fully appreciate what they’re told by those immersed inside. It’s the old “you had to be there” or “you just have to try it” thing. There are some experiences I’ve had in my real life I simply can’t convey to others. They do have to experience those things for themselves.

    With regard to Heisenberg, I’m not sure that holds here. As virtual worlds become larger, the impact of one magically-inserted researcher – whose impact on events does not significantly change probabilities – is not, imo, of any real consequence. I can open the windows to my apartment today, but I doubt this will change the weather at the end of the week.

    Something else I’d also point out is that unlike Heisenberg, people studying virtual worlds can create doppelgangers. There’s no reason a researcher can’t have two or more identities. After all, if as I’ve read teenage girls typically have multiple identities for a variety of chatrooms and online social activities, wouldn’t a researcher want to mimic that behavior to see what they’re seeing? understand better what they’re experiencing? If I were actually researching a place like Second Life, I’d have quite a lot of identities I think.

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