Want to screw up a virtual world experiment? Here's how

The concept of having a virtual business presence remains a work in progress and there is an obvious incentive for companies not to screw it up. But they keep tripping over their own feet.

An island all to yourselves sounds dreamy if you're planning a vacation with your spouse. But not so in the virtual world, where that sort of solitude is potential poison for companies setting up shop.

I've flown my avatar into more than one Second Life property where it was basically just me and my lonesome. This was an embarrassing marketing mistake by folks who should have known better. Unfortunately, it's not an isolated incident.

Parks Associates

"Companies make a mistake when they assume that people will come when it's built. But then you go to a property and find out that it's empty," says Barry Gilbert, who directs research for Strategy Analytics, specializing in virtual online environments.

Amen to that. The behavior and expectations we've grown up with on the Web does not uniformly apply to virtual worlds. If you think this is a case of build it and they will come, think again. "They" wont. Virtual worlds are supposed to be interactive media where things change in real time. Instead, we're winding up too often with "Dullsville."

More than a year ago, Frank Rose wrote a devastating piece in Wired on Madison Avenue's wasted stampede to set up shop in Second Life, the most popular of the non-gaming virtual worlds. His conclusion: the effort was only "slurping up corporate dollars and delivering little in return." Ouch.

Hard to say how much things have changed. This is the proverbial work in progress and there is an obvious incentive for companies not to screw it up: A session (in a virtual environment) lasts between 45 to 50 minutes versus, on average, a few minutes on a Web site. But marketers are going to have to try awfully hard to blow this opportunity given the popularity of virtual worlds. Consider the following statistics on global unique sessions for non-gaming virtual worlds compiled by Strategy Analytics:

•  2006: 46 million

•  2007: 90 million

•  2008 (projected) 137 million

Looking over the horizon, Strategy Analytics projects the numbers will reach close to 1 billion within 10 years. I know. Take market research projections with a big grain of salt. But we're talking about a pretty big upside when you consider that only 7 percent of Internet gamers visit virtual worlds each week, according to Parks Associates.

Of course, it's hard to sustain their attention (let alone participation) when companies insist upon turning virtual world sites into cyberversions of St. Helena.

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About the author

Charles Cooper was an executive editor at CNET News. He has covered technology and business for more than 25 years, working at CBSNews.com, the Associated Press, Computer & Software News, Computer Shopper, PC Week, and ZDNet.

 

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