NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- If you want to take your brand virtual, you don't need to get a Second Life. In fact, the virtual world, along with some other social-networking sites, is already starting to seem a little old-fashioned.
As any 14-year-old will tell you, the true measure of a pop star's popularity is how many friends he has on MySpace. And as far as friends goes, megastar rapper 50 Cent's got plenty of 'em -- more than 908,000. But even 50 knows he's going to have to harness more than just a well-organized MySpace contingent to top the 1.14 million copies he sold of his last album, "The Massacre," in 2005.
That's why he's taking the interactive aspect of MySpace one step further by becoming a "Zwinky," a fully-functioning avatar for Zwinky.com. The move coincides with the Sept. 4 release date for his next album, "Curtis," on Interscope Records. Not only can fans add 50 as their "friend" on Zwinky, they can use his avatar as their own and customize it before hitting various social-networking sites -- all the while spreading the word on the new album.
Chris "Broadway" Romero, 50's creative director of digital media, said the internet has always been a friend as much as it has been a foe in marketing his client's music. After files of "The Massacre" leaked onto music-sharing sites before its scheduled release date, Interscope rushed out the album four days ahead of schedule. "It kinda threw things into a frenzy," Mr. Romero said. "People had nowhere to go to find material, and we didn't necessarily do any strategic partnerships with online sites. But music is about visibility now, and record companies are on their way to becoming advertising companies -- looking forward to where the marketplace is going."
And one place the marketplace is no longer rushing is Second Life, despite a huge wave of hype to the contrary less than a year ago. At its peak, marketers were tripping over themselves to get their brands into the video-game-esque virtual world, where users can create real-life versions of themselves to live out their virtual fantasies, all the while interacting with real-life brands. Everyone from Starwood Hotels to American Apparel angled to score bragging rights on being the firsts in their respective industries ("First hotel in Second Life!" "First clothing brand in Second Life!"), until there came a point when it seemed to be news if a company wasn't considering jumping into Second Life. Meanwhile, mass immigration to the shores of Second Life had stabilized, with the application averaging 132,000 downloads a month from November 2006 to May 2007, and an additional average of 364,000 unique visits to SecondLife.com per month in the same time period.
But the consumer appetite for putting a real-life spin on everyday digital activities has never been higher, with sites such as Zwinky, Stardoll and Doppelganger seeing traffic spikes. Zwinky, for example, garnered nearly 3.6 million unique visits in May alone, while SecondLife.com accumulated just under 4 million unique visits in the span of an entire year, according to ComScore.
There's even enough interest to generate the first avatar-only concert, as Zwinky hosted its own "Stage-Z" at last weekend's Live Earth featuring Columbia Records artists Kelly Rowland and Teddy Geiger performing in prerecorded avatar form as well as appearing live at the New York event. "Lots of people aren't going to be able to get to these concerts, so to be connected to some of these artists in a virtual setting is incredible," said Samantha Saturn, Columbia's VP-digital marketing.
Though the executives interviewed for this story didn't disclose terms of their deals, the recording companies do have to pay to play. But early returns indicate that having a virtual world as your promotional partner can only help album sales. Witness Avril Lavigne, who became the first musician to partner with Stardoll, a site that lets visitors dress up virtual-paper-doll likenesses of celebrities. Ms. Lavigne partnered with Stardoll two days before her album "The Best Damn Thing" made its debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200, selling 286,000 copies its first week on shelves. Two months later, the album is still holding strong in the midteens as traffic to Stardoll reaches 1.7 million unique visits a month. It's a combination so attractive that Hilary Duff has already signed on to be the second official Stardoll celebrity -- not surprising, considering she has an album, clothing line, perfume and tour to promote.
Even veteran marketers are starting to see the appeal of the virtual space. Stardoll's new Exec VP-General Manager Matthew Palmer left his gig as executive VP-marketing at Walt Disney for the opportunity to interact more closely with the 8-to-14 demo, despite having two of the most surefire-hit kids' brands on his hands in "Hannah Montana" and "High School Musical" when he left in April.
"I saw an opportunity to it that really made sense; it seemed like a natural progression if you look at what the other kids' networks are doing," " Mr. Palmer said. "Cartoon Network has a Doll Emporium; even Nick has Nicktropolis. They're all looking for their share of kids' eyeballs. The demo is where we cross."
Move beyond music
Mr. Palmer's hope for the near future for Stardoll is to take the virtual-paper-doll model beyond the music world and get some personalities from TV and movies in on the fun, in addition to brands in cosmetics and fashion.
The site closest to Second Life in appearance and scope, Doppelganger, has achieved several milestones in virtual-world brand integration. From its Pussycat Dolls Music Lounge to fashion partnerships with Rocawear and Kitson, the site is starting to make good on its plans to become a younger, safer Second Life for teens and early-20-somethings.
"We control the development of the environment, so we build all the buildings, do all the labeling. You won't find a big, phallic building next to the NBC studio," said Doppelganger CEO Tim Stevens, referencing an actual misfire in branded Second Life architecture. "It's like watching TV -- you can't change the parameters of TV, but you can provide a pretty broad spectrum within. Partners like Tyra Banks chose us because we embody the experience they're trying to get across, and it's the same with brands."
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CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly reported that Chris "Broadway" Romero was 50 Cent's manager. He is the rapper's creative director of digital media. 50 Cent is managed by Violator Management.