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Virtual Worlds in Business

Chris Hambly's picture
Submitted by Chris Hambly on 15 April 2011 - 10:11am

Mention virtual worlds and most people think of the Matrix and not being able to discern reality from virtuality. We haven’t come that far but virtual worlds are still gaining popularity rapidly, even after the recent boom year of 2007. So much so that major corporations are trying to make inroads as another way to tap into new markets.

Personally I've some hefty experience of operating in virtual worlds, with one of the highlights being part of the Virtual Thirst team run by The Coca-Cola Company, Crayon and Millions of Us.

Steve Coulson states it best:

Coca-Cola's first initiative within the virtual world of Second Life, "Virtual Thirst" was a community competition to design the perfect "Experience Vending Machine". It combined the Second Life platform with social media hubs such as Flickr, MySpace and YouTube, and influencer outreach programs to evangelize the program to leading bloggers and podcasters. Weekly in-world dance parties on the floating Coca-Cola pavillion helped keep the buzz going until the winning entry was announced and distributed free to residents.

The point for me in, a business context, is that no matter what size your business is you are always looking into ways to capture a potential customer’s attention, right? The Virtual Thirst example above was sure, lots of fun, but more importantly showed a progressive attitude to trying new channels and approaches to marketing. The fact of the mattter is that brand engagement levels during that campaign were incredibly high!

So Second Life was the premier of virtual worlds. Originally a place to socialize, it captured the attention of many companies such as IBM, Coca Cola, Starwood Hotels, and American Apparel when Linden dollars began to generate real incomes. They were among the many that had/have real estate in this virtual community to keep their products in the forefront of the internet evolution. Now companies are developing the capabilities to have their own “free standing” virtual worlds.

As the use of virtual worlds grows it could be a powerful tool for any business owner. Thinking outside the video gaming box, there is the potential use as a training tool for employees. It could reduce the need for training personnel to travel to multiple locations. It could make it easier to train employees on equipment use over a traditional training manual by providing a pseudo hands on experience. It can also be a way to bring together others in your industry in virtual conferences, thus reducing typical travel expenses for airfare, hotels, etc.

Having a virtual world could be a way to give customers outside your locale the full shopping experience. As a clothing designer wouldn’t it be great to give the customer a chance to try on an outfit in the comfort of their living room? In your virtual shop it wouldn’t matter that you’re in Chicago and your customer is in London. Having the avatar modeling for a customer could improve the decision making process, increase sales, and reduce returns. Perhaps you run a boutique hotel. Your clientele could select their room after a walk through, make reservations at the front desk, and plan an evening on the town with the concierge before they set foot on the property.

In the long run it could be something to consider having in your marketing toolbox as costs come down for the architecture and software improves. It presents another opportunity to stand out among your competitors who are too timid to expand their business to the boundless web.

What are your thoughts, have you experimented with virtual words? I'd really like to hear about your experience and thoughts regarding virtual worlds, particularly from a marketing and engagement perspective.