Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Herding Virtual Sheep

Last Friday I noticed an article on MediaPost about a new product to allow the creation of branded virtual worlds. I imagine a lot of marketers would have the same two questions I did:

2.Who cares?

So I spend some time over the weekend exploring The Electric Sheep Company and some of their applications. The exploration turned up some interesting information.
The company is over 3 years old and has built virtual worlds for various clients on existing platforms like SecondLife. The WebFlock product, according to founder Sibley Verbeck, is “a tool set for embedding flash-based virtual spaces within Web sites and integrating those into any existing Web applications. . . Primarily we see it as enabling virtual spaces for casual audiences who are already coming to a given Web site.” The first WebFlock project is a virtual world for Showtime’s The L Word series, which I’d guess has an audience that would enjoy the interaction a virtual world will offer.

But that doesn’t answer the broader “why” question. I looked farther; not difficult, since Electric Sheep has a robust Flickr site (why don’t more companies take advantage of sites like Flickr to demonstrate product use/happy customers?). I see projects for the NBA Finals (broadening the customer experience, as I remember), the USG Division of Siemens (looks like a virtual pavilion in Second Life), Best Buy’s Geek Squad (what it’s like to be a Geek Squad member), a Starwood hotel under construction (a preview of a new “select service” concept under construction at the time), and many others. Many are targeted at a young adult audience, but companies like USG/Siemens and IBM clearly have a business audience. If you look carefully, you see that many of them are either event- or entertainment-oriented. The content also makes sense.

If there are reasonable strategic answers to “why,” that still leaves the issue of whether website visitors will use them. These are corporate applications; I’m sure the owners know but equally sure few will reveal any specifics. I did find some more general information about virtual worlds, however, that suggests there is more going on in this space than most of us probably know about.

KZero, a British research firm that specializes in virtual worlds, has a graphic of the virtual world space. It’s segmented by content type and shows whether each world is open or in private beta. There is a lot going on, even though it doesn’t appear to cover the short-lived event and other branded worlds. And, yes, I know it’s small and hard to read. The good news is that they have this data broken out by content type and also by age group. It’s interesting reading.

MediaPost notes that a company can expect to spend less than $100,000 for a branded virtual world using this platform. If you have a good reason for doing it, and an audience that is willing to participate, that’s not much in the greater universe of media expenditures. WebFlock is an interesting development that’s worth watching.

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