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October 31, 2010

In spite of all our differences, are we all virtually the same?

by Howard Fox Chartered Marketer

Meet Lacy Muircastle – long flowing dark hair, piercing blue eyes, curvaceous, virtual journalist and Miss Costa Rica Sims 2011 finalist. See photo:
http://tinyurl.com/398soqk

A fundamental question in marketing is: how different and / or similar are consumers in different markets? Consumers have hugely different cultures, religions, mores and norms, experiences, economic circumstances and access to information. In spite of this, there are I believe, a number of core human and market traits, which are virtually universal.

To test this theory I interviewed (via instant messaging- subsequently edited) Lacy Muircastle an avatar on Second Life™. Second Life (“SL™”) is a virtual community of over 2 million avatars (read consumers to us marketers), who live and work in a completely virtual world. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Second_Life

It makes a great case study because in this virtual world, you can be anyone you want to be, so cultural mores and all the other influences are presumably suppressed.

MF: Are all Second Life avatars as attractive as you?
LM: No. Everyone has a different perception of what they think is attractive and here in SL you can be anything you like.
MF: So not all avatars are in human form?
LM: No, you also get “tinies” which are mainly small animals such as little dragons, and “furries” mostly dogs and wolves, you get the picture…
MF: But behind every avatar, there is a real human somewhere in the world?
LM: Absolutely!.
MF: I write a marketing column, as you may know. I’d like to ask about marketing on SL – what sort of marketing takes place?
LM: There are magazines (in world publications which are usually free) distributed through ‘kiosks” at venues and stores around the high traffic areas. Direct marketing through “note cards” to avatars, is big – this is done via groups e.g. press groups or general information groups. Billboards have been reduced significantly because they were cluttering up the landscape and subsequently moved to “advertising farms”.
MF And radio and TV?
LM: There are radio stations on SL just like the “real world” and they have adverts like everywhere else. “TV” is also present but they don’t run conventional ads yet – undoubtedly and area worth exploring though.
MF: Dare I ask – is there social networking for avatars?
LM: LOL, undoubtedly, what a question, several actually dedicated to SL avatars specifically and a big presence on Facebook, twitter, flickr and the other mainstream social networking sites.

The fundamental point here is that just like any market, the first hurdle is finding a communication medium, which is actually consumed by the target market. In the virtual SL world, while it might theoretically be easier to create a new medium at relatively low cost, it still needs to gain significant support from the market for it to be a viable marketing channel. And media fragmentation seems to be an issue here as in all markets. Some things never change.

MF: I’d like to understand SL consumer behaviour. What sort of products gets marketed to avatars?
LM: The SL fashion industry is huge and it’s the most prolific and visible market that is advertised, followed by real estate and housing/interior decorating (furniture etc.)
MF: So it’s important to keep up with the virtual Jones?
LM: That depends on the circles you move in. But generally speaking even though avatars may be a fantasy depiction of the person controlling them the same human truths prevail. Egos are just as big in SL as in the real world. Avatars are competitive and seek power and influence within the community just as you would expect in RL (real life). They want the latest fashions and a nice virtual living space.

So the fundamental point is that while different markets all have their own idiosyncrasies, of which we as marketers should take careful cognisance, there are also more fundamental drivers of human and consumer behaviour. These fundamentals are powerful because they impact everyone at their human core. The original Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs is instructive, because it is easy to get distracted by the uniqueness within a market and forget that we all still need love; affection and a sense of belonging (for instance) no matter which “market” marketers might believe we fall within.

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