Virtual worlds, they are all the buzz. CEO's of Fortune 50 companies are claiming they are the next evolution of the internet. Gartner has publicly announced that by 2011 they believe 80% of the internet will have a "second life" (though they also warned about security issues this past week as well). Lastly, over 100 articles have been written about virtual worlds in just the past 6 months.
If you were to see all of this, you might immediately run down to your web team and say "I NEED A VIRTUAL WORLD PRESENCE." Which is exactly what a 100 or so major companies have already done, only to see that a nascent market is precisely that: a nascent market.
Don't get me wrong, I believe just like Sal Palmisano, IBM CEO, that virtual worlds are the next evolution of the internet, however we must first learn how to market within virtual worlds, how users of virtual worlds like to be communicated to, and how best to message our brand and position our company, products, and services. We must iron out the kinks and nail down security issues. We must bolt down the hatches, and hoist the sales.
I don't blame the companies completely though, as so many creative developers quickly jumped on the bandwagon and started spitting out their show-stopping creative and telling brands exactly how and why they should be in a virtual world. All of this without a single statement, quote, remark, or comment from an actual customer of (insert brand).
Did we not just go through this around the turn of this century when everyone had a website not because they knew how to leverage and use it, but because the guy next door did and the creative was just too cool for school? Did we also not go through one of the worst industry busts of all time, when the deck of cards on the Dot.Com era came crashing down? Did we not learn that we must first research, ask questions, talk to customers, understand usability, etc. prior to building the coolest creative ever?
I just got done spending a couple of hours on MarketingSherpa.com reading all the case studies about how companies have been successful designing and re-designing their websites because they took the time to poll customers, to run usability tests, and to understand the psychology of the users. Virtual world presences are basically 3-D websites, so why should we buck the process we have been using the past 5 years or so just because there is a new cool gadget out on the market?
If you are a marketer of a brand and you are reading this, I urge you to ask the question which comes first, the research/usability or the creative. If you think it is research/usability, then give me a ring. I can’t guarantee that virtual worlds are ready for your brand, however I can help you make a decision, keep you from second guessing, and allow you to focus on the things that matter. If you think it is creative go talk to the corporations already in virtual worlds. My guess is that a good many of them can't explain the current strategic direction of their presence (though they might have been able to when it launched).
Virtual worlds are definitely the next evolution of the internet, but until we as marketers start to understand that virtual worlds are not a chicken and egg proposition, that they are clearly research/usability first, creative second, then we will be stuck with 1 step forward and 2 steps back as big media has a heyday debating the viability of virtual worlds.