Just a couple of days ago the Tories were calling the government extravagant because of the 3D innovation centres that had been set up, using taxpayers’ money and “living a fantasy world”, in Second Life. Whether the government has been extravagant or not, it’s not only governmental departments, but also non-profitable organisations, well-known universities and blue-chip companies who are using such technologies. Creating platforms inside virtual worlds for innovation and co-creation (with consumers), research & development, and corporate training.
IBM, for instance, set up a virtual world to let employees use chat, instant messaging and voice communication programs while also connecting to user-generated content in the public spaces of Second Life. Several retailers – including banks like ING and Wells Fargo – opened up virtual branches inside these virtual communities to offer their financial products. Coca Cola has also been exploring virtual worlds with consumers from Coke Studios, to World of Warcraft, to Habbo Hotel and Second Life. In 2007, Coca Cola launched a Second Life contest inviting consumers to design a new Coke dispensing machine.
Why all this hype? Well, in just 6-7 years, virtual worlds have registered approximately 300 million people, of which hundreds of thousands are supposed to be active users. Some experts, or speculators, are estimating that if virtual worlds’ population continues growing at the same speed seen in the last couple of years, there will be one billion residents by 2025.
The other interesting thing about virtual worlds is that not only computing game enthusiasts and computer geeks are using them. Some researchers claim that a sizeable proportion of users are male and female in their mid 30s. Furthermore, it is estimated that the average use per person in virtual worlds is 22 hours per week, which means that people are spending more than 3 hours of their daily time navigating, playing, doing business, or just hanging out in virtual worlds.
Virtual worlds also offer the chance to users, ordinary people and companies, to keep IP rights for the ideas and products they create. Hence, it’s unsurprising that many companies and organisations want to be present there. They seem to be the perfect places to connect actively with consumers to test new ideas, get some collaborative work, and perhaps build long-term relationships with them.
How all of this is affecting us, marketers and brand strategists? Well, reflecting on the changes of consumers’ behaviours and perceptions with regards to brands as result of their interactions in virtual worlds. We should also be thinking of how to use these virtual spaces to effectively design and implement brand strategies that create sustainable value for our brands, products and companies in virtual worlds; as well as in the ‘real’ world.