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MTV goes '4D' with virtual-worlds push

At N.Y. marketing conference, the cable network touted its game plan for melding content from MTV shows with fully 3D virtual worlds. Images: Living in a virtual Laguna Beach

NEW YORK--It already has one of the most valuable brand names in television. Now MTV is hoping it can repeat that success as a marketing leader in virtual worlds.

That was the cable giant's message during a three-part keynote address Wednesday morning at the Virtual Worlds 2007 conference here.

The company is calling its new cross-platform strategy "4D." Essentially, the approach will attempt to combine content from MTV Networks' television shows with fully 3D virtual worlds and then put it all through a feedback loop in which people can interact with TV personalities and create content that becomes part of the shared experience.

"We really believe that this is going to profoundly change the ways that brands like MTV interact with their audience," said Matt Bostwick, senior vice president for franchise development at MTV Networks' Music Group. "There's no tight storyline you're following. It's an open experience."

Already, MTV has launched two branded virtual worlds, and . These take the story lines of hit shows Laguna Beach and The Hills, respectively, and weave them into a large, public 3D digital environment in which users can meet the shows' stars, or "live" the lifestyles of the programs.

Now, MTV is preparing to unveil Virtual Pimp My Ride, a virtual-world version of another of the network's hit shows.

Playing on the notion that the three TV shows take place in Southern California cities, MTV has created a virtual "highway" that will make it possible for users of each of the three virtual worlds to visit the other two.

The environments were created using Makena Technologies' There.com platform, but each are closed off from the general .

The MTV keynote was among the early sessions of this two-day conference, the first of its kind to bring together major media companies and virtual-world platform developers in a bid to advance marketing in 3D environments. The most talked-about virtual world at the event is Second Life, but other players, including There.com, Entropia Universe, Whyville and platform developer Multiverse Network, are also on hand.

MTV seems particularly enthused about the way it's leveraging its virtual properties as advertising media. And to a room full of major media executives eager to hear how they too can make money in virtual worlds the words of Bostwick and two other MTV executives were very good news.

According to Bostwick, more than 600,000 registered users have signed up for Virtual Laguna Beach and Virtual Hills in just six months, and the company expects that number to rise to 3 million by the beginning of December.

Dream metrics for advertisers?
He added that the metrics for the two virtual worlds were an advertiser's dream: 64 percent of users come back regularly, users visit 1.4 times per week for an average of 37 minutes each time, and users have so far logged more than 72 million minutes in-world.

Earlier in the keynote, MTV Networks Executive Vice President Jeffrey Yapp said that according to the company's internal metrics, 99 percent of users of its virtual worlds are exposed to branded content, and as many as 85 percent voluntarily interact with those brands.

"What's in it for you guys?" Bostwick asked. "Our ad model is to take people from the current exposure model, which works well (on TV), and to go from seeing an ad to interacting with your brand."

He then showed a series of slides illustrating what MTV, as part of its 4D TV concept, is calling "4D branding."

Among the images were those showing avatars using branded cell phones as a tool for communicating in-world, as well as kiosks where participants can examine digital images of real cell phones. He also showed a series of shots of avatars buying Pepsi-branded drinks and riding Pepsi-branded hoverboards and scooters.

In addition, he explained that the designers of Virtual Laguna Beach had built in a Pepsi-branded "skills ladder" system in which users had to complete a series of tasks, each of which earned them "Pepsi points."

"They became status symbols," Bostwick said. "You couldn't buy them. You had to earn them."

And lest anyone argue that users of virtual worlds don't want to be marketed to, especially not by major real-world brands, he pointed out that one out of three Virtual Laguna Beach users had interacted with some form of Pepsi-branded content. There have even been active forum discussions in which users asked others how to get ahold of that content, he said.

Ultimately, MTV and other media companies at the conference are banking on an explosion of interest in the medium to drive a corresponding surge in ad dollars.

To juice it up, MTV is focusing intently on how to bring more of its content into virtual worlds, making it one of the leading media companies in the space.

For example, Bostwick explained how a cast member from one of the network's shows could do a live TV event, then go straight in-world to interact with avatars. Later, he suggested, users might be able to create video content in-world that could make its way back onto TV.

"We really feel like this programming bridge between TV and virtual is really important, particularly for taking mainstream users into this context," Bostwick said. "But the link to TV is the starting point, not the ending point. We really think where the fourth dimension comes in, where TV leaves off, is the people. Traditional chat rooms and social-networking sites feel so yesterday when you come into a virtual world."

He said users of MTV's virtual worlds had so far used 6.4 million emoticons, initiated 2 million chats, accepted 320,000 invitations to chat privately, and added new people to buddy lists more than 92,000 times.

"Our goal is to let them create their own storylines and content," Bostwick said. "We think this will come full circle when the content flows from inside our worlds onto the screen."