This report was released a couple of weeks ago by our friends over at Trendwatching.com. For those of you interested in getting a handle on the upsurge of interest in marketing through virtual worlds and avatars, this is an excellent primer.
Jesse Shannon at Adotas has also published a thoughtful 2 Part Feature on his blog entitled "Marketing's New Manifestation; Why Avatars Best Represent Online User Engagement"
Broad pieces like these, coming on the heels of the recent piece in the Harvard Business Review' entitled "Avatar Based Marketing" are beginning to lay out the broad landscape of virtual worlds and explain to marketers what the advantages are to reaching out to consumers in these environments. What seems clear is that one issue confounding folks is the question of "Who's the person behind the avatar"? In other words, one of primary draws for users entering spaces like Second Life or Habbo Hotel is the basic guarantee of anonymity and escapism the spaces provide. Yet for marketers, knowing who they're reaching is critical.
It seems to me that this is an age old problem that is no easier to answer in conventional media or the web than it is in virtual worlds. Think about it -- how do advertisers know who's watching the TV shows they advertise on? They rely on sampling and surveys from companies like AC Nielsen -- the same sort of services will naturally arise for virtual worlds. The problem is that the immersive interface of a virtual world makes it seem harder to figure out than it needs to be -- the optical illusion is that because a 21 year old woman from Peoria can be roleplaying an old man from New York, that somehow clouds the picture.
At the end of the day, the truth is that marketers will reach their audiences the same way they always do -- by providing experiences of value to the demographic. The people they want to reach will flock to these content experiences and they'll bring there friends -- and someday soon the tracking and reporting tools will follow.