Why You Should Market to Virtual-World Avatars

The Real-World Benefits of Targeting Nonexistent People

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Think about marketing to a person that doesn't even exist. Pointless, right?
'Harvard Business Review' senior editor Paul Hemp suggests that marketers should focus on selling directly to avatars, or the virtual identities created by many Web consumers.
'Harvard Business Review' senior editor Paul Hemp suggests that marketers should focus on selling directly to avatars, or the virtual identities created by many Web consumers.

Well, Paul Hemp, a senior editor at the Harvard Business Review, has penned a piece for his publication's June issue suggesting that smart marketers should do just that. He argues that as virtual worlds become more popular, advertisers should strive to reach not just the wallet-carrying consumers who play games online, but also the avatars that virtually represent those individuals.

A sort of alter ego
An avatar is an alter ego of sorts, an animated or photographic image, human or non-human, that Web surfers use to identify themselves online. The virtual worlds of which Mr. Hemp writes include Second Life, a game where players create avatars that interact with each other and contribute to the economy by buying land and products; Sims, in which players simulate real-world actions and routines (eating, drinking, sleeping, doing chores); and World of Warcraft, a combat-focused virtual game with 6 million subscribers.

But even more mainstream games are beginning to look avatar-based. Players of Tiger Woods Golf, a popular video golf game from EA Sports, can create a golfer with any number of physical attributes -- from the arch of an eyebrow to the power of a swing -- and that golfer can wear Nike golf shirts and use Callaway drivers. Even instant-messaging applications and online forums allow users to create images that represent them.

And marketers have begun to integrate their brands into these worlds. Mr. Hemp points to Coca-Cola's Coke Studios, a virtual teen-oriented world, and Wells Fargo's virtual world Stagecoach Island, which uses games to teach teens how to handle money. In addition, Wendy's is launching an avatar-driven Web site to market its late-night menu.

But few marketers have actually marketed to the avatars, Mr. Hemp said. In his piece, Mr. Hemp pitches the theory that avatars are very much like hidden pieces of a person's emotional makeup and that targeting them can have real-world payoffs. He says that at the very least, marketers can study avatars to get a better understanding of the real-world people behind them.

Ad Age Digital: This concept is almost philosophical and is certainly psychological -- how did you conceive the story?

Paul Hemp: I didn't come at it from a gaming angle but rather a psychological angle. When I heard of the concept of the avatar my first thought was: one person, two potential consumers. That idea opened up a window that I think a lot of people are missing as we just begin to the think about these virtual marketing realms. In these worlds, who actually is a consumer?

We're talking about two things here. One is the next marketing frontier, which is virtual worlds and all the rich possibilities that entails, particularly in massive multi-player online games where you have thousands of people interacting simultaneously. And [there are signs] everybody's just beginning to think about that -- Microsoft buys Massive, for example. To get way ahead of the curve, smart marketers need to be thinking about not only "where" are these virtual-marketing opportunities, but the "who." Who are the actual consumers in this environment? Are they the consumers who pony up their credit card number to play the game or are they the avatars people have created to represent themselves in these new worlds?

Ad Age Digital: You know there are going to be plenty of naysayers and skeptics who will be wondering what the heck you were thinking when you dreamed this up.

Mr. Hemp: Some people and blogs have said, where does this guy get off, doesn't he get it? The real-world human controls the real-world wallet. But it does seem to me that these 10 million avatars out there represent a distinctly different universe of shadow consumers who are able to influence their creators, make their own purchases through the hand of their creator and at the very least give some insight into the hidden desires of the creators.

Ad Age Digital: Tell me about the various kinds of research a marketer might be able to do by studying people's avatars.

Mr. Hemp: There's the argument that avatars potentially represent a very powerful but hidden or unexplored part of a consumer's personality. And, therefore, they have a lot of power and maybe provide a window into consumer preferences you otherwise wouldn't otherwise easily be able to get -- they reflect people's hopes and dreams. The other psychological aspect is that it's digital so there's just an astonishing amount of information that can be captured on how people use things or how they respond to offers. But here you have people not just responding to offers, but you have in virtual worlds these avatars testing out products. And the avatars' movements and tastes can be collected, sorted and segmented.

There's research being done at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab that says in a digital environment an age-old salesman's trick works really well: When the salesperson adopts the mannerisms of the person being sold to, the person being sold to likes the salesperson better. So in the digital world you could have an avatar salesperson doing this with a simple computer script and be a better seller of goods to an avatar. The last flourish on this, not "1984" but a 2084 scenario, is that an avatar can tailor its actions or responses to the actions or responses to 100 people in a virtual room and therefore be more appealing to that group of people.

Ad Age Digital: There's a lot of branded product placement, it seems, in the avatar world. How does that differ from marketing to avatars?

Mr. Hemp: It's a launching pad for the sort of things I'm talking about ... but it doesn't begin to take advantage of building a relationship with an avatar that has a personality that's different from its creator and that actually gets people influenced to spend real money.

Ad Age Digital: You touch on the word-of-mouth opportunities in the avatar world, citing an idea that Internet-culture blogger Tony Walsh calls "advertars." What does a marketer need to be concerned about in trying to enter this world and create positive buzz?

Mr. Hemp: You lose some control. Once it becomes user interactive, you lose some control over the brand. There are all kinds of perils here, obviously. Your product could be laughed about throughout a virtual world. In most virtual worlds or games there's more residual resistance to the invasion of the real world. Or if you're in a game that involves medieval combat, make sure Pepsi cans aren't littering the banquet table. [Doing it wrong] creates such hostility for this 3D spam that a marketer can hurt itself.

A marketer should make sure these things are harmonious with the world in which it's living and enhance the nature of the game. I'll give you an example of Nike, which two or three years ago offered sneakers that made the avatars in a virtual world run faster. It seemed a natural part of the world and also enhanced people's experiences.

Even in Second Life, which has gotten so much publicity because it's relatively sophisticated, there are corners of that world which would be pretty dangerous places for mainstream marketers to go, islands where they practice slavery and such. The lesson is don't be afraid to experiment but don't wander blindly into a virtual world.
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