Written by Christina Kyriakou
Moving from the Web 1.0 to the Web 2.0 era, a brand new world is introduced to marketers by offering alternative solutions for branding, based on the “New Media”. Multiple, new digital media opened a completely new road for branding, a road full with opportunities and challenges for marketers. By the term “New Media” multiple digital and advertising media are implicated such as internet advertising (pop-ups, buttons, banners etc), Mobile commerce, social networking spaces (facebook, twitter, MySpace etc), Podcasting, viral marketing, blogs and video sites (Winer, 2009). However, during the past ten years the market witnessed the Social Networking Spaces transforming into a massive trend which could even give its name to a whole generation (Kwon, Sung, 2011). Thus, the researchers now implicate that we are moving to a Millennial Makeover by the Social Media (Winograd, Hais, 2008). Many terms such as the Facebook Generation or the Twitter Generation have been used to describe the generation of today’s, which communicates, interacts and shapes opinions and behaviors through the social media (Meadows-Klue, 2008).
On the other hand, some analysts have already started discussing about the end of these social media comparing facebook and twitter to Myspace’s unfortunate fate. Lance Whitney mentions that although facebook is close to reach one billion members worldwide, some of them are not using the platform with the same frequency as they used. He also mentions that some advertisements are not as successful as they used to be, giving the example of General Motors which claimed that a large amount of facebook advertisement investments will be pulled as they didn’t give the expected results (http://news.cnet.com, 2012). Meanwhile, one other phenomenon of social media is coming to the surface, giving big promises to the branding world. Virtual Worlds such as “Second Life” or “Eve Online” increase dramatically their popularity between social media users. Eventually Virtual Worlds draw the attention of marketers as new marketing channels which can offer much more options for brand building (Barnes, Mattson, 2011).
Based to the facts mentioned above, it seems that Virtual worlds could consist an important opportunity in the field of branding through Internet. This paper aims to address the effect of virtual worlds on the consumers’ behavior. By addressing these effects, the paper finally aims to draw conclusions on whether or not Virtual Worlds could be the “new” branding means for brand managers and what challenges, if any, could emerge by them in the future. Specifying, this paper answers within theoretical implications and examples to the question: Are Virtual Worlds’ avatars influencing the consumer’s behavior in such a way that could make them an emerging powerful tool for brand building?
Moving to the Metamedia era
While the scenery of branding tools is changing, one major challenge that marketers have to face in terms of brand building is change that happened into the communication models. As Winer implicates (figure 1) whereas in the past the firm had the control of the content and the medium which would be delivered to the customers , nowadays the power is on the customers who have the strength to control and shape both the medium and the content and as a result the brand image (Winer, 2009).
This change into the Mass Communication model is deeply connected to the interactivity options which came along with the transition from the multimedia to the hypermedia and the metamedia environment. In the multimedia environment of the past, consumers had limited control due to the absence of interactivity. Today they are facing a hypermedia environment where audio, text, video, animation, graphics and hyperlinks can coexist and support each other. Facebook, Twitter and generally all the available social media and www pages are typical examples of hypermedia where the interactivity can be considered as their major power (Bornman, Von Solms, 1993). However, a metamedia environment seems ready to take over as researchers and scientists have already started formatting the next generation of media. Metamedia is the integrated form of hypermedia which use metadata in order to create smart connections between new technologies and new media (Solomon, 2010). What is important is that whereas conventional social media seem to limit themselves into the boundaries of what hypermedia can offer, Virtual Worlds appear ready to enter the new metamedia environment and adapt to its advanced applications.
Define Virtual Worlds
Virtual worlds refer to online communities where the members can communicate and interact with each other in a parallel world simulation. In these cyber simulated worlds the community members can move, socialize, use, create or purchase objects and set goals on real time such as they would do in common reality. Usually they enter into these communities transformed to 3D Avatars which they have the option to format according to their personal preferences. Avatars is one of the main characteristics and advantages for the members as they offer anonymity, a fact that, on the other hand could, be considered as a challenge for the marketers too (Wasko, 2011)
Virtual Worlds on Behavior
Having defined what Virtual Worlds is about it is interesting to investigate how these Virtual-Cyber communities affect the human behavior and how they formulate consumers’ attitudes. According to Gorini et al, there is a logical explanation about the popularity of virtual worlds and their representative Avatars. They connect it to the effects that the Avatar-Interaction has on human behavior. In their research they implicate that through avatars the users express their need for socializing, belonging and creativity. By entering a Virtual World community they also obtain a stronger sense of social presence. Moreover, Gorini et al suggest that the 3D communication which Avatars can offer inspires their owners more trust and safety than they could have by face-to-face communication. Thus, the 3D animation technologies of Virtual Worlds provide the users with a real-feeling experience where they feel more confident to show their true-self as they can hide behind the mask of Avatars. However, despite the therapeutic effect on psychology that the researchers suggest, they also mention possibility of addiction phenomena as they tend to become over-passionate about their virtual life and neglect their real life (Gorini et al, 2008)
Gorini’s et al research could be also supported by referring to the Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs theory. If we assume that human’s needs are following the hierarchy that Maslow proposes as figure 2 shows, then Virtual Worlds can fulfill human needs that are connected with all the other levels apart from the physiological needs. Having fulfilled their physiological needs the users can be fearless to express themselves ehind the avatars (Safety), they belong to an ideal for them community (Belonginess and Love), they increase their self esteem with superficial Avatar capabilities (esteem) and they actualize themselves by expressing their creativity (self-actualization), (Datta, 2010).
Virtual Economies: the case of Second Life
Looking at the Avatar users as consumers a very interesting phenomenon is noticed within the Virtual Worlds for marketers, which will be reviewed by the case of Second Life. Second Life is one of the most popular Virtual Worlds which recognize increasing success since 2003. It is a virtual parallel world in which the users are welcomed to live a second life as they have imagined it. They exist in this world as Avatars which shape as they want creating the image they like by choosing from multiple options. The inhabitants of this world live a virtual life similar to a normal one. They socialize, make friends, they fall in love, they arrange different activities and they interact as members of a normal society (Kaplan, Haenlein, 2009).
What is interesting about this virtual society is that they even have formulated a virtual market. They have their virtual property, they can buy objects they desire by virtual money and they can also trade between each other. What is even more interesting is the participation of real brands with iconic products in this market. Brands compete in the Second-Life as they would compete in the real world, building brand images, delivering brand communication and advertising their products. However, these products are not real but virtual. The Avatars-citizens or else the users are willing to pay real money in order to dress their Second-Life selves with trendy clothes, to use the latest technologies computers, to travel to magic destinations and to build their ideal homes-But in a Virtual World, in a world they can shape however they want, they can look like they want, they can express like they really feel (Yue, Stuart, 2011).
If real people identify themselves in virtual animation sketches, and live in a parallel world, interact in a parallel market with the real one, then brand managers have to keep up with their real customers by following them to their new life-the Second Life. Thus huge Brands such as Adidas and Dell are participating to the Second Life Market in order to promote their products, communicate their brand image and increase their sales, even if they are in a virtual world.
Virtual Worlds as Branding Tools: the case of Coca Cola
Whereas in the case of Second Life Brands are participating in an already existent virtual world, virtual worlds can also be created for brand building. Coca Cola is a fine example for explaining how virtual worlds can be used for branding reasons. Coca Cola created the CC Metro; a virtual world where its customers created an avatar which lived in a Coca Cola on-line island. The users could buy products for their avatars by using the codes which were printed on the bottles of Coke they bought. This way, Coca Cola not only obtained invaluable customer insights for its customers but also increased its sales (Story, 2007).
Conclusions and Research Implications
Returning to the beginning, this paper made an effort to answer on whether or not Virtual Worlds could be an opportunity for marketers in order to utilize them as a new powerful tool for branding. This question was based to the observations that virtual worlds gain popularity while the first discussions about the end of the traditional social media as we know them (Facebook, twitter, etc) have already began. Referring to the fact that we are moving from a hypermedia to a metamedia environment, which is better supported by virtual worlds’ platforms, it was implicated that the virtual worlds worth drawing the researchers’ attention. Following, after defining the meaning of virtual world it was proven that virtual worlds can be very influential to the human’s behavior and psychology as they can fulfill all the different levels of Maslow’s hierarchy needs apart from the very basic physiological needs. This, leads to the conclusion that virtual worlds and their avatars can be very useful into influencing perceptions and behaviors of their users. Furthermore, the paper proved that virtual worlds have powerful, influential impacts not only on human behavior in general but in consumers’ behavior specifically. Giving the example of Second Life, it was proven that virtual worlds are powerful enough in order to build virtual markets where the users are willing to interact while strong brands have already started to compete with virtual products. Ending up, the potentials of virtual worlds as plain brand building and sales increasing tools were given within the example of Coca Cola.
Combining all these and answering to the initial question of the paper, virtual worlds have definitely the potential of becoming a powerful branding tool for marketers or at least they cannot be ignored. However, as they are not yet as appealing as Facebook or twitter, further research could be done in order to find out which are the reasons for not attracting as much users as the other social media and how could marketers bring their customers closer to the promising avatars.
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