MediaPost Media Magazine

by Steve Smith

Setting up shop in a new neighborhood can be a challenge – especially when the laws of physics don’t apply. The Golden Rules of Virtual World Marketing.

When multinational franchises start moving into any small town, there is one cardinal rule: Never piss off the locals. Just ask Wal-Mart. Apparently the same holds true of online virtual worlds like the much-publicized Second Life, where big brands like Reuters, Sony, Dell, and Toyota set up shop. It’s not that residents of this 3-D world of user-generated communities, avatars, and economies, have trouble sharing the infinite space with real-world logos and marketers, but there have been a few bones of contention.

Of course residents like being able to design and drive their own Scion cars, tour a mock-up of a future real-world hotel, and buy Dell PCs. But what really got under their silicon hides were outside marketers claiming to be the “first” businesses of their kind to open in a world that has been building its own complex economy for three years. For example, in August an Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide executive posted a “Gallery of Virtual ‘Firsts’ From Second Life” that included a Suzanne Vega concert, an American Apparel megastore, and a massive hotel from Starwood.

“Bullshit and hyperventilation,” screamed The Second Life Herald, the virtual newspaper that covers this virtual world. “I would say it is a case of a bunch of desperate, clueless f**ktards trying to show how bleeding-edgy they are. … But they are being exposed as clueless frauds.”

Welcome to the neighborhood.

Granted, the isolated protests that broke out in SL last fall were voiced by avatars, so it was difficult to say what was role-playing and what was genuine. Reality gets a little dicey in here. But the point was well taken by newcomers like Joseph Jaffe, founder and president of new marketing firm crayon, which has offices in SL. “The real point that has come out of this is that residents are not happy about companies taking credit from residents, from established pioneers who have paved the way.” Jaffe’s own bleeding-edge company got touched by the controversy when one founder offhandedly claimed that crayon’s in-world launch was also a “first.” Ultimately, Jaffe thinks, it was a positive for crayon, an eight-person startup that made the front page of The Wall Street Journal in its first days. “It allowed us real-time feedback. The reaction helped us tweak the PR release and refine our message.”

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