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For the next two weeks (until October 29, 2010), Virtual Goods World is offering a two-day pass to the conference for just £950, a savings of £1,245. Register now to take advantage of this unprecedented offer.

For many years, European companies have played a pioneering role in the field of virtual goods. Several of the first successful virtual goods-based businesses outside of Asia, such as Habbo Hotel, were launched by European companies, and today Europe represents a rapidly growing market from both a content development and user distribution perspective.

Virtual Goods World has attracted an impressive array of speakers including CEOs from many of the most innovative companies in the space including Sulake, Outspark, and Sparkplay Media. Register today to be part of an in-depth conversation on how to leverage the explosive opportunity in the virtual goods space.

For a limited time, get $200 off the registration rate for Engage Santa Clara, the premier conference on virtual goods, virtual worlds, games, and toys. Use discount code “speakervip” when you register. This offer expires on September 20.

Engage Santa Clara takes place September 22-23, 2010 at the Santa Clara Convention Center. The show includes two primary tracks: Virtual Goods and Games, Technology and Toys. Plus all attendees receive a free copy of the Branded Virtual Goods Report, a report that I co-authored with Zeenat Rasheed from Viximo and Brett Orlanski from Virtual Greats.

The Virtual Goods track delivers what developers need to know to leverage virtual goods. Covering social games, Facebook apps, virtual worlds, mobile applications and more.

The Games, Technology and Toys track covers business models, design, development and investment issues surrounding social games, mobile games, virtual worlds and more.

More details are available here.

Europe has played a key role in the evolution of virtual goods outside of Asia. Habbo Hotel, created by Finish developer Sulake, was one of the first proof points that virtual goods could work on a mass scale outside of Asia. Today, Habbo Hotel gets about 15 million visitors a month and generated $60 million in revenue in 2009, primarily from virtual goods.

In addition to virtual worlds, Europe has played a key role in the development of the social game market and many view European social networks as a key front in the expansion of social gaming outside of Facebook. In a recent interview with Lloyd Melnick on Social Games Observer, Playdom’s General Manager of International Operations discussed how the company views European social networks, such as Germany’s StudiVZ and Poland’s Nasza Klasa, as a key part of its expansion. Melnick cites the fact that strong monetization on Orkut, Google’s social network which has a heavily international audience, is an indicator that international users monetize as well as if not better than U.S. users.

Leaders in the virtual goods, social media, and social gaming industry will gather at the Virtual Goods World Europe 2010 conference in London. The conference will last three days from November 15 to 17 and will feature CEO-level speakers in the industry including Timo Soininen, CEO of Sulake, Mari Baker, CEO of Playfirst, and John Earner, General Manager of Playfish EMEA. The conference will focus on the opportunities and challenges presented by the explosive growth in virtual goods, and will cover a range of topics to help social networks, game developers, and brands turn this growth into a reliable revenue stream.

Things have been a little crazy on the Viximo front, and the Virtual Worlds 2008 Conference Series which I nobly planned to finish a week after the conference still has a couple of posts left.

This article is inspired by Virtual Goods and Branded Virtual Goods: The New Way to Revenue, a session in the Marketing and Entertainment track of Virtual Worlds 2008. The panel was moderated by Giff Constable, COO of Electric Sheep Company and featured Craig Sherman, CEO of Gaia Online; Matt Bostwick, CEO of A4R4 Media and formerly head of MTV’s Virtual Worlds group; Ruben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us; and Gene Yoon, VP of Business Affairs of Linden Lab.

A New Era for Branding

Let’s face it. Brand marketers have had a tough few years. The mass exodus from offline media viewership to online media viewership has left many brand marketers scratching their heads. While call-to-action marketers have basked in the measurability and effectiveness of pay-per-click and pay-per-action search advertising, brand marketers are reeling from a one-two punch of decreased TV ad viewership (courtesy of TiVo) and the increased ubiquity of the lowly banner ad.

But a new era for branding is dawning—one that will make the gains of search advertising look paltry by comparison. Matt Bostwick explained that “branding” is what happens when a consumer takes a marketing message and makes it part of her mind, heart, and lifestyle. In the past, a key tool for transforming “marketing message” to “brand relationship” was poignant television advertising (just try watching a great Nike ad without having an emotional reaction). Certainly, online video will be an important vehicle for brand marketers, but the ultimate tool in the age of the avatar generation is branded virtual goods.

Branded virtual goods spark the cycle of brand engagement. The cycle begins when a viewer sees the brand in the low-barrier context of a virtual world. When a user chooses to interact with that brand, the relationship begins. As that relationship matures, the user becomes an online advocate for the brand and shares it with her social network. Return on investment is achieved in two stages: 1) when the user buys a virtual representation of the brand online and 2) when that relationship moves offline and the user buys physical branded product.

Is this really working? Absolutely. Over 80% of the MTV Virtual Worlds community have purchased a branded virtual good and these virtual goods have been used over 5 million times. Altogether, that has resulted in 50 million viral endorsements—not 50 million “impressions”, but 50 million endorsements made from one user to another. And MTV has found that people who purchased and used branded virtual goods have a radically increased interest in purchasing that brand’s physical goods.

The Vanishing Line Between Real and “Virtual”

So why is all this working? Why are people carrying online brand relationships into the real-world and vice versa? It all has to do with the avatarization of our identities. The “avatar generation” is the first generation where nearly everyone will have an avatar, where the line between people’s digital lives and offline lives will become vanishingly thin.

Parents of children who use Webkinz are all too familiar with this phenonmenon—they know that the physical plush toy is almost incidental to its online manifestation. This phenomenon is amplified by the fact that people tend to play “as themselves” in online worlds. Since avatars represent their creators, the products consumed by avatars and within virtual worlds represent real world purchase intent. Stardoll leverages this by coordinating virtual goods product availability with real world product availability. If a girl likes the way her avatar looks in that new DKNY pencil skirt, she can run out and buy it from the brick-and-mortar store that day.

Some people worry that branding sullies the virtual world experience—that people don’t want brands in their virtual worlds. Certainly, some worlds represent an online “utopia” for their users and these users want to escape the trappings of the real world. To some extent, that is why brands have had a hard time in Second Life. But, for many people, brands are a valuable mechanism for self-expression. The virtual worlds that attract users who express themselves through the clothes they wear, the bands they listen to, and the brands they use will find that branded virtual goods enhance the experience and make the virtual world more real.

A Choice-Based Medium

The most salient characteristic of branding in virtual worlds is that virtual worlds are a choice-based medium. If consumers choose your brand, that becomes a powerful viral distribution mechanism, but if consumer’s don’t choose your brand, it dies on the vine. Matt Bostwick describes this as a swarm of “brand bots”. Brand marketers send these automatons into an array of virtual worlds. In some worlds, these brand bots multiply and evolve as user’s shepherd them through the social fabric of the world, and in other worlds they go neglected and die. Many factors determine the fate of these brand bots including the nature of the virtual world, the receptivity of that world’s audience, and the resonance of the brand message. Its up to brand marketers to chose the right worlds for their brands, find the most receptive target demographic, and craft a winning brand experience.

Marketing Strategy for Virtual Goods

There is a tendency to think of virtual goods campaigns as a form of advertising or media buy. In general, media buys are fire-and-forget, but virtual goods campaigns are very different. The “build it and they will come” strategy just doesn’t work, and early players figured that out quickly. Kicking off a virtual goods campaign needs to be thought of like any other product launch—its the beginning, not the end. Just as a solid marketing strategy is necessary to win with a product launch, it is the bedrock of a successful virtual goods campaign.

“Interactive” Product Placement

As television advertising viewership has evaporated, brand marketers have found an oasis in product placement. While many forms of traditional advertising are declining, PQMedia, a consultancy focused on alternate forms of advertising, predicts that product placement spending will rise from $3.1B in 2006 to $5.6B in 2010.

In many ways, virtual goods campaigns are really a form of product placement woven into the dynamics of virtual worlds. What’s the key differentiator between traditional product placement and virtual goods campaigns? Interactivity.

Since virtual worlds are a choice-based medium, product placement in virtual worlds is subject to the swarm effect I discussed earlier—the products are given over to consumers, instead of television producers, to place, position, and promote.

The tactics that make a successful product placement campaign work in virtual worlds too:

  • Carefully select the contexts in which your product appears—the contexts should be relevant and complementary
  • Products should be identifiably, but subtly, branded—big and loud logos are too heavy handed
  • Know that you are giving up some control and be aware of the risks and rewards
  • Make it easy for the consumer to take action (e.g., TV placements are often followed by informational ad spots to help close the sale, Stardoll makes it easy to buy the clothes featured online, etc.)

One of the tactics that is unique to virtual worlds is that virtual goods can reinforce brand messages through the mechanics of that virtual world. Craig Sherman from Gaia Online discussed how Nike is integrated into their world. A key brand message for Nike is that they help you achieve better athletic performance. How do you reinforce that in a virtual world? Well, when a consumer buys a pair of Nikes in Gaia Online, they enable that person’s avatar to run faster. As with real-world product placement, virtual goods campaigns aren’t just about slapping a logo on a visual asset.

Theatrical Experiences


Craig Sherman and Ruben Steiger discussed the strategy for integrating brands and branded virtual goods into Gaia Online. The true power of the virtual world medium is unleashed when operators and brands work together to create theatrical experiences that permeate every facet of the virtual world. Certainly, one of the masters of offline theatrical experiences is the WWE. Ruben discussed how Millions of Us, Gaia Online, and the WWE worked together to pull that theatrical flair into Gaia.

They started the campaign with an event in Gaia’s forums. John Cena, one of the WWE’s main protagonists, was an active participant in the forum. Like fans at an offline WWE event, various people started heckling John in the forums. When the forums got to a heated pitch, one of the Gaia users was revealed as John’s nemesis and that kicked off the rivalry at WWE SummerSlam. The campaign was a major success (it has been honored with a couple rewards) and virtual goods related to the WWE became highly sought after in the Gaia community.

Ruben explained that virtual goods allow brand marketers to explore entirely new areas. Virtual goods can act as the medium for stories or brand messages, can evolve over time, can unlock capabilities such as being able to run faster, and can make users an integral part of the brand story.

Channel Strategy

Channel strategy is one of the four pillars of traditional marketing strategy. It turns out that channel strategy is just as important for virtual goods campaigns.

The first step in defining a successful channel strategy is to select the appropriate online services and virtual worlds for a given brand. As with offline channel strategy, one of the callenges of an online channel strategy is dealing with lack of control if the channel is not owned and operated by the brand. Many brands are addressing this challenge by developing their own virtual worlds. For example, Mattel built its own channel for its Barbie brand with Barbie Girls and Disney is planning to invest up to $100 million in 10 different virtual worlds for its brands.

As in the real world, it’s not always optimal or practical for product brands to vertically integrate into distribution. This will become increasingly true as virtual world development costs follow the same path as video game development costs (it currently costs about $5 million to implement a basic virtual world and this cost will increase to $20-$50 million over the next 5-7 years). Matt Bostwick hit the point when he said: “You don’t need to build New York City in order to sell Coke.” Even in the cases where a brand decides to implement its own virtual worlds, valuable opportunities are missed if that brand focuses exclusively on those worlds.


Once a brand has selected the appropriate virtual worlds for its products, then it needs to devise a distribution strategy for reaching consumers in those worlds. Oftentimes, the operator of the virtual world will be instrumental in defining that distribution strategy. However, in more free-form worlds such as Second Life, the brand may need to implement its own promotion and distribution plan.

Brands would be wise to follow the example of the L’Oreal campaign in Second Life which was run by K Zero. Typically, when brands have implemented campaigns in Second Life, they create their own venue and attempt to drive traffic to that venue (this is the analog of a brand running its own brick-and-mortar retail store). Instead, K Zero and L’Oreal worked with successful virtual entrepreneurs to promote and distribute L’Oreal’s virtual products through their existing distribution networks. What L’Oreal lost in “brand control”, they more than made up for in increased awareness and distribution.

The best practices for channel strategy carry over into the online world: success is achieved by selecting a mix of appropriate channels and by carefully managing, motivating, and monitoring those channels. Channel decisions are never easy, but the right ones separate success from failure.

Just the Beginning

We really are at the dawn of a new era for brands. Opportunities abound, but so do risks. Brands will have to navigate a permanent shift to increased consumer choice and control. The music industry faced a similar inflection point a few years ago. Consumer brands are already proving that they are much more savvy than the big record labels, and they’ll reap the corresponding rewards.

Tucked away in Room 5 on the ambiguously named “Technology & Results” track at the Virtual Worlds Conference, Matt Palmer and Glenn Ginsburg presented a session titled “Stardoll: The Next Level of Engagement”. Stardoll not only represents the next level of user engagement, it also represents the state of the art in brand integration and virtual goods business models.

Stardoll’s Audience


Spreading Like Wildfire

Stardoll has over 16 million registered accounts and is adding 35,000 new accounts per day. But Stardoll doesn’t suffer from registered account bloat; the site reaches 7.8 million unique users per month. Those users generate 600 million page views over 35 million visits per month. Even at a modest CPM, that’s a whole lot of revenue, but Stardoll’s business doesn’t rely on banner ads. Instead, Stardoll relies on virtual good sales and integrated sponsorship. As result, they simultaneously achieve a higher revenue per user and provide a better user experience. But more about that later.

Perhaps you’re thinking that this growth must be the product of a massive, expensive, unsustainable media campaign? Not a chance, Stardoll hasn’t spent a dollar on paid media. Growth is driven by viral buzz and press exposure.

Global Appeal

Stardoll is an international phenomenon. It was started by a Finnish woman who wanted to share her passion for fashion with her friends and family. Today, the 60-70 employee company is headquartered in Stockholm, but commands a global audience (44% in the U.S., 46% in Europe, and 10% in Asia). The site has been translated into 15 languages and additional translations, such as Japanese, are on the way.

Girl Power

Not suprisingly, Stardoll’s audience is primarily female (93.1% female, 6.9% male). The site appeals at a universal level to its key demographic - a demographic that has been notoriously difficult to reach in a meaningful way. Stardoll is attaining scale without diluting their core audience; it has the highest concentration of teen girls of any online service.

In addition to teenage girls, the site has found a surprising audience - their mothers. 81% of mothers visit Stardoll weekly and 63% visit the site without their daughter. Co-viewership on that scale is virtually unheard of on the web.

Stardoll’s “Gameplay”

Who Knew Putting On Clothes Could Be So Much Fun?

At Microsoft Game Studios, we urged our first party developers to identify their game’s core fun as early as possible. Once that core fun is identified and refined, building a great game is actually pretty straightforward. For Halo, the core fun is aiming and shooting with a variety of well-balanced weapons. For Age of Empires, the core fun is establishing an efficient unit production pipeline.

The Stardoll team knows that their core fun is dressing a paper doll. Apparel is dragged off hangers and onto the paper doll. It can be placed anywhere on the screen, and that simple mechanic yields a good deal of fun. Want to give David Hasselhoff that much needed gangsta look? Drag his pants down low. Think it’s about time for Avril Lavigne to ditch that good girl look? Low rise pants and a little cleavage couldn’t hurt.

Stardoll builds on that core fun with an array of thousands of dress-up and make-up options. This gives Stardoll’s entire audience, from Goth girls to Glam chicks, a powerful way to express their unique identities.

From Solitary to Social

Stardoll’s dress-up function acts as the foundation for a broader experience that looks a lot like other virtual worlds. Stardoll users get their own space, called a Suite room, which they can decorate to suit their tastes. A new chat feature lets a user share the dress-up experience by inviting a friend to her Suite room.

The heart of Stardoll is StarPlaza, an online shopping mall that features Stardoll’s internal brands, such as Fudge and Pretty in Pink, and real world brands, such as DKNY. Stardoll also features an active aftermarket, called StarBazaar, where users and buy and sell items in their wardrobe. Basically, its a virtual vintage shop.

To date, all of the apparel and other virtual items in Stardoll have been designed by Stardoll’s creative team. StarDesign is a soon to launch feature that allows Stardoll’s audience to create their own fashions. The combination of StarPlaza, StarBazaar, and StarDesign will enable Stardoll’s users to participate in a rich virtual economy based on the fashion they love.

Stardoll’s virtual world features are complemented by features that are more commonly seen in social networks. Each user is given a profile page that looks a lot like a typical social networking profile page. However, due to the site’s younger demographic, the contents of the profile pages are limited. Girls can’t upload photos, but they can express themselves with images of their MeDoll and a variety of profile customization options. Stardoll also features Clubs that are similar to Facebook Groups. The Clubs feature was launched five months ago and there are already over 500,000 Clubs in the system.

Stardoll’s Business

Virtual Goods Done Right

Six figure real estate deals in Second Life and massive gold farming in World of Warcraft are what get the media’s attention when they talk about virtual goods. But Stardoll is the company that has flawlessly unlocked the power of the virtual goods business model.

The first key to Stardoll’s success is that they’ve found a genre of virtual items that are truly valuable to their audience. Celebrities and their fashion are an aspirational obsession for millions of people around the world, and Stardoll taps directly into the vein of that obsession. That same insatiable desire to look trendy in the real world translates, without skipping a beat, into the online world.

The second key to Stardoll’s success is that they provide an incredibly rich platform with which fashion brands can reach their demographic. As soon as fashions hit the runway or the retail shelf, they are available in Stardoll. If a girl thinks her MeDoll looks cute in that new pencil skirt from DKNY, she can run out that day and grab the very same skirt from her local brick and mortar mall. That same branding extends beyond just apparel. MeDoll make-up is provided under the Sephora brand and jewelry is based on designs from Heidi Klum’s jewelry collection.

All of this makes Stardoll one of the most powerful branding and lead generation tools thats ever been available to the fashion industry. They have even had consumers ask when Stardoll’s house brands, such as Pretty in Pink, will be available in brick and mortar stores.

Advertising Done Right

Stardoll doesn’t fall back on banner ads to augment their virtual goods business. Instead, they weave marketing messages into the features of the Stardoll experience and, as a result, create an advertising experience which is fun, engaging, and far more powerful than static banner ads.

For example, during a recent advertising campaign for Disney’s movie Enchanted, Stardoll took scenes, characters, and costumes directly from the movie and incorporated them into the world. As a result, Stardoll’s users could immerse themselves in the fiction of the movie and develop an attachment to the movie world before Enchanted even hit screens. In a unique twist on banner advertising, Stardoll offered a poster that users could hang in their Suites. That poster was hung in hundreds of thousands of Suites and generated millions of ad impressions. Stardoll’s approach to advertising generated everything from casual brand impressions to deep engagement in a way that added value to the audience’s experience and was elegantly integrated into the site’s core activities.

Stardoll provides a similarly rich branding platform to actors and music artists. Every celebrity featured on Stardoll has their own unique URL so that they can use their Stardoll presence as a promotional vehicle. In addition, Stardoll often runs explicit promotions for celebrities and musicians who are featured on their site. For example, Stardoll recently ran a contest where a member of their audience was flown to an Avril Lavigne concert and got to meet her backstage.

Stardoll’s approach to advertising highlights some important lessons:

  • Audiences want advertising, but only for the brands they care about
  • Audiences want to chose the brand messages they receive; they don’t want those messages pushed to them
  • Just as in the real world, online brand associations are powerful personal identifiers
  • Engagement is maximized when branding is woven into the core activities of the site
  • Above all else, advertising should be fun for the user, not a distraction

A Model for the Future

Although virtual goods have resulted in extraordinary success in Asia, there has been some doubt as to whether virtual goods would become a mainstream business model in Europe and the U.S. When Cyworld recently close its doors in Europe, some people asked whether virtual goods would ever be relevant outside of Asia.

Stardoll is proof positive that virtual goods have a very promising future in Europe and the U.S. The Stardoll team has hit on a recipe that is uniquely engaging to their core demographic, and they are leveraging that recipe to provide maximum value to their users and their advertisers.

I’m glad that I stumbled into Room 5 at the Virtual Worlds Conference. Stardoll is defining the future of virtual goods today — and I’m amazed that they’ve flown under the industry radar for so long. Stardoll has captured the attention of 16 million girls around the world, but they don’t even have a Wikipedia page.

This article is primarily inspired by Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: Today and The Future, a session in the Marketing and Entertainment track of Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City. The panel included Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, the Director of Broadband & Gaming at Parks Associates; Jack Myers, President of Myers Publishing, LLC; and Joey Seiler, Editor of Virtual World News. It is part of a series on Virtual Worlds 2008.

In the face of significant competition, the biggest challenge for a new virtual world isn’t attracting new users, its retaining them from month to month. This challenge is particularly acute for virtual worlds targeting a younger demographic who have short attention spans and often migrate between worlds.

In the past, it seemed that the best practice for retaining virtual world users was to provide an open world that put the social aspects at the front and center of the experience. This reflects the notion that virtual worlds are open playgrounds rather than lightweight video games.

Today, there’s an evolution that is happening at both the micro level (i.e., for each individual player) and the macro level (i.e., for the industry as a whole). As the initial social novelty of a virtual world wears off, users seek out more structured activities to keep themselves entertained. Open virtual worlds, like Second Life, give players the tools to create their own structured activities. Tringo, a multiplayer game created by a resident of Second Life, is a great example of how a single user’s efforts enriches the overall world.

However, relying on users to keep themselves entertained can be a tricky business — especially when greener pastures are just a click away. In Designing a Gameless Game, Sulka Haro discusses how Sulake enriched the Habbo Hotel experience with game-like elements and structured activities. In some cases, this involved canonizing ad-hoc activities into formal mini-games and in other cases it involved adding lightweight mechanics that act like the jungle gym on a playground. These additions have helped Habbo achieve its impressive growth.

Michael Cai presented data that confirms today’s conventional wisdom that users want more game-like experiences from their virtual worlds. When users were asked why they participate in virtual worlds, they answered:

  • 36% to play games
  • 29% to escape real life
  • 21% to create and manage an avatar
  • 19% to interact with other members

But, as designers add game mechanics to virtual worlds, there’s a danger of virtual worlds losing their distinct identity and being subsumed into MMORPG’s. Jack Myers described what users want in a different way. He proposed that users don’t necessarily want gameplay, they want “curated experiences”.

That’s a brilliant way to describe what users want because its so much more open and appropriate than thinking in terms of gameplay alone. The curator of a user’s experience can take many forms: game mechanics, tutorials, community managers, virtual companions, other users, and even the user himself. And the experience can take many forms as well. It can be as simple as traversing the world or as sophisticated as creating parts of that world.

Ultimately, curated experiences are a way to suggest goals to a user and guide that user to achieving those goals. When a virtual world’s users don’t have goals, wanderlust sets in and that world risks losing its hard won audience. Like an accomplished museum curator, virtual world operators must act with a subtle hand to guide their audience to the most compelling parts of their collection.

This article is primarily inspired by Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: Today and The Future, a session in the Marketing and Entertainment track of Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City. The panel included Yuanzhe (Michael) Cai, the Director of Broadband & Gaming at Parks Associates; Jack Myers, President of Myers Publishing, LLC; and Joey Seiler, Editor of Virtual World News. It is part of a series on Virtual Worlds 2008.

What do you think of when you here the term “virtual world”. For most people, the term virtual world evokes images of Second Life’s muted, sometimes absurd 3D landscapes and its overly geometric, lightly textured avatars. We’re all familiar with Second Life’s somewhat clumsy rendition of the real world where the fantastical looks out of place, but the realistic doesn’t quite fit either. Its exactly what I imagined in the early 1990′s when the notions of cyberspace, metaverses, and virtual reality came of age.

And, if you haven’t noticed, the press loves Second Life just as much as the industry. It has the perfect name for a headline, and the sordid details of its residents’ lives are as juicy as those of Client #9.

Second Life’s membership of 13 million registered accounts pales in comparison to many of its virtual world brethren (Habbo claims to have 90 million), and its ratio of active users (estimated at 1.4 million) to registered accounts is a mere 11% compared to the industry average of 25%. When you look at virtual worlds by the numbers, Club Penguin, Habbo Hotel, Stardoll, and their counterparts are what really matter and are what the virtual world industry should be obsessing over.

Here are a couple of hints that Second Life is an anomaly rather than the industry benchmark:

  • In the past year, Second Life’s membership has languished, while every virtual world of equivalent or greater size is growing rapidly. As mentioned, its active user ratio of 11% trails far behind the industry average of 25%.
  • Although Second Life is one of the top 5 virtual worlds that people have tried (Neopets, Second Life, Webkinz, Disney’s Toontown, and Club Penguin), its the only 3D one and the only one not aimed at kids.
  • Second Life is male dominated (70% men vs. 30% women), but most other virtual worlds of equivalent or greater size are either gender neutral (Habbo Hotel) or predominantly female (Stardoll and Barbie Girls).
  • According to the Parks Associates study, 36% of respondents participate in virtual worlds to play games and 21% participate to create and manage an avatar. On average, only 19% of virtual world participants are looking to escape real life. The motivations of Second Life users are very different. The most popular reason to participate in Second Life is to escape real life (cited by 50% of users) or to create an avatar (cited by 40% of users).
  • Second Life residents are disillusioned with the commercialization of their world. According to a research study of 200 Second Life residents, 70% of Second Life users are disappointed with corporate activities and 40% think that the corporate activities are one-time affairs and won’t last. Those prognostications will likely fall on deaf ears. Consider that 80% of users of MTV’s virtual worlds have purchased a branded product and their users have generated over 50 million viral endorsements via their use of branded items. Habbo Hotel, Stardoll, Gaia Online, and others have had similar success with branded items and sponsored campaigns.

Linden Lab deserves a lot of credit for what they’ve created with Second Life. They built a visionary product that has inspired an industry, and their media machine has ignited the general public’s interest in the space. But, as with many visionary products, their future lies with a small, but fervent early adopter audience. In many ways, Second Life is to the virtual world space as Everquest was to the MMORPG space. Just as World of Warcraft brought MMORPG’s to the masses, Habbo Hotel, Gaia Online, Stardoll, and others are distilling Second Life’s essence into an elixir fit for mass consumption.

Second Life is dead. Long live Second Life!

On Thursday April 3rd and Friday April 4th, I attended the Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City. This year’s attendance, which rose sharply from last year, serves as a reminder that interest in virtual worlds is exploding.

The conference featured an impressive array of speakers and some really good ground was covered. In-depth session transcripts have been posted on Virtual Worlds News, which is run by the organizers of the event. Rather than post my own transcripts, I’ve put together a series of articles inspired by the sessions I attended. These articles will be posted over the next week.

Virtual Goods Branding 101 discusses the tightly coupled relationship between brands and virtual worlds.

Metrics for a Brave New (Virtual) World discusses the effort to define and standardize metrics for virtual world media.

Second Life is the Industry Anomaly, Not the Standard discusses how the relevance of Second Life is waning as more successful virtual worlds take center stage.

Stardoll: Casual Web Community or Hardcore Virtual World? discusses how Stardoll has defied conventional wisdom about what is and isn’t “hardcore”.

Virtual Worlds Through the Generations provides an analysis of virtual world growth segmented by age demographic.

Zen and the Art of Curated Experiences discusses how virtual worlds are using structured activities to create a more engaging experience for their users.

I’ll add links to the articles as they are posted. So check back here or subscribe to the RSS feed if you’d like to keep up to date.

This article is inspired by Virtual Worlds By The Numbers: Today and The Future, a session in the Marketing and Entertainment track of Virtual Worlds 2008 conference in New York City. It is part of a series on Virtual Worlds 2008.

Nic Mitham at K Zero put together an analysis of growth in registered accounts for the virtual worlds industry. He segmented virtual worlds into four categories based on their primary age demographics: up to 10 years old, 10 to 20, 20 to 30, and 30+ years old. When virtual worlds are analyzed through an age-specific lens, very different trends emerge in each segment.

Kids Up to 10 Years Old

Kids oriented virtual worlds are going through explosive growth. While parents have known for a couple years that their kids spend big money in Club Penguin and Webkinz, a wake up call went out to the venture capital industry when Disney acquired Club Penguin for $700 million in August 2007. Since then, there has been massive investment in kids-oriented virtual worlds.

In 2008 and 2009, the competitive environment for kids-oriented virtual worlds is going to get a lot tougher. Big brands, like Mattel and Disney, are making significant investments in the virtual worlds space. Mattel’s Barbie Girls is on its way to becoming the largest virtual world. Disney is investing up to $100 million in a portfolio of up to 10 different virtual worlds.

As toy and entertainment companies move into this space, it’s going to get increasingly difficult for greenfield startups to make a successful play. Although Mattel has found that kids are now more interested in online content than physical toys, there is an undeniably synergy between pairing offline products with online content.

Kids Between 10 and 20 Years Old

Currently, this is the largest segment of the virtual worlds industry. The biggest player, Habbo Hotel, has 90 million registered users globally which dwarfs the 15 million registered users claimed by Club Penguin and the 10+ million registered users claimed by Second Life.

The biggest challenge for virtual worlds targeting this age demographic is migratory exploration. Kids have short attention spans, and if a virtual world doesn’t keep a user entertained, she can easily find another place to play. These worlds can keep their experience fresh by focusing on what kids in this age demographic want: fashion and clothing, music, self-expression, and live events.

MTV’s Virtual Worlds are the shining star here. They currently have 1.2 million registered users and are growing by 4,500 registrations per day. In 2007, vMTV served up 160 million minutes of entertainment with an average session of 20 minutes. Six hundred thousand people visited an MTV virtual world in the last 4 weeks.

MTV’s strategy is to pair its TV programming with virtual world experience; MTV has released virtual worlds for its major properties including The Virtual Hills, The Virtual Real World, and Virtual Pimp My Ride. They aggressively program live events into their worlds. For example, vLES (Virtual Lower East Side) often features performances of local bands from New York’s Lower East Side Neighborhood.

As with kids-oriented virtual worlds, teen-oriented virtual worlds will likely be dominated by large entertainment companies that can create an entertainment experience that spans multiple forms of offline and online media.

Adults Between 20 and 30 Years Old, Adults Over 30

While Second Life is often in the limelight, there is very little activity (and even less success) in virtual worlds for young adults and middle age adults. Second Life, Kaneva, and are the major players. Rather than aggregating mass audiences, this segment seems to be evolving into niche verticals that cater to specific interests. For example, Second Life has over 60 different disease specific support groups. Perhaps there’s an interesting model in taking the CarePages concept into a 2D or 3D virtual world. There are also opportunities in the enterprise space; IBM recently announced that it would host sections of Second Life behind its firewalls so that its employees could use Second Life as a virtual meeting area.

I’m skeptical that virtual worlds aimed at older users will gain much traction. I think these efforts will go the same way as Eons, a social network targeted at the over 50 set. Its not that adults won’t use virtual worlds. They certainly will, but they’ll use the same ones as younger users. Either they’ll co-play with their children (see Confessions of a Middle Aged Webkinz Addict for an amusing account of this phenomenon) or just give into their younger whims like the millions of 30+ players of World of Warcraft.

Virtual World News announced today that TurboSquid has partnered with VastPark to distribute their collection of 3D assets via VastPark’s virtual worlds platform. Currently, TurboSquid acts in a capacity similar to stock photo agencies such as iStockphoto; they provide pre-fabricated 3D assets to game and virtual world developers. These developers use TurboSquid’s assets to augment their internal art teams in the same way that a book publisher might use stock photos to augment their internal art & design team.

However, the true value of a virtual good isn’t determined by the material from which it is made (in this case, the 3D geometry and textures that TurboSquid sells to developers), rather it is determined by the economy and social context within which it is sold. So an asset that TurboSquid sells for $300 in a B2B transaction may generate tens of thousands of dollars in B2C sales if it is used to create a rare, sought-after in-game virtual item.

Accordingly, TurboSquid seems to be shifting their strategy from a stock asset agency to a virtual goods provider. The first step in this shift is their partnership with VastPark. VastPark has been described as “the Ning of virtual worlds”. Using VastPark, anyone can create and share their own virtual world. With this partnership, VastPark’s users will be able to use TurboSquid’s extensive collection of assets to make their worlds richer and more immersive.

Matt Wisdom, CEO of TurboSquid, describes his company’s strategy:

“Ultimately where we’re trying to go is to take 3D to the consumer marketplace. We’ve done very well with sort of stock 3D and the professional marketplace. The big picture is when regular consumers are buying 3D, whether it’s clothes for their avatar or avatars or any representation they want to have online. We’re trying to connect the consumers to the artists in the virtual worlds.”"


Virtual Goods Insider covers the burgeoning economy of in-game items, avatar customization, virtual gifts, digital media, and other goods that exist purely in digital form. It is written and published by Ravi Mehta, a veteran of the online gaming and consumer media industries.



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