Thursday, April 05, 2007

Virtual Worlds 2007 Observations

Last week, the "first" Virtual Worlds conference subtitled "The Future of Marketing and Media" was held in New York. I've been sitting on this post for a week and after much deliberation, I've decided to unleash it in a form that is nothing more than my observations and commentary.

You can find plenty of posts about the "news" of the conference and you can watch a few celebrity interviews, so I won't bore you with additional minutia about suits, overbooking, under planning and poor execution. Those elements are the subject of most of my scribbled conference note expletives, but there are others so let's get going.

I've been working in this space for about a year now and aside from technology, my primary motivation for attending the conference was two-fold:
1) find out what strategies are being employed in this space, and 2) get some *data* regarding results of the much publicised endeavors. The conference was run more like a fire side chat, so I got very little of either despite agenda headliners such as: "Defining you Strategy, What does ROI mean to you?"

Matt Bostwick , Jeffrey Yapp and Steve Youngwood of Viacom's MTV Networks and Nickelodeon provided the most comprehensive information with their aggressive virtual world progenies
Virtual Laguna Beach (VLB) and NICKtropolis in tow. Viacom announced new "niche" worlds in development including Pimp My Ride, LOGOWorld and a nightclub/music project based on Doppleganger's music lounge where the intent is the further blur the lines between TV, the web and a 3D world. They have branded their strategy "4D TV" which in mathematical terms is 4D TV = TV + 3D, a true representation of the blurring lines between pure linear TV and on-line engagement models. To quote Bostwick from CNET's article:
"Our goal is to let them create their own story lines and content. We think this will come full circle when the content flows from inside our worlds onto the screen."
Have I heard that somewhere before?

I found a few tidbits of the Viacom self-reported data below intriguing and if we knew how much they have invested in these properties, we'd have some insight into the 4D equation.
  • For VLB in-game advertising, 99% of the resident population were exposed to ads, and 85% of those chose to interact with the brand element within 2 weeks of deployment
  • Last month, over 92,000 people clicked on "Add a buddy" from virtual MTV
  • NICKtropolis launched in January and has over 2.4 million registered users, of which 1.3 million users have created rooms
  • The Neopets site gets 11 million uniques a month and the "average" person spends 3 hours a week on Neopets
So that was a big media company perspective, but if you want data you look to IBM, right? After all, IBM announced that they are investing $10M over the next year in virtual worlds including an expanded presence in Second Life and their own 3D intranet.
Every time we've moved ahead in IBM, it was because someone was willing to take a chance, put his head on the block, and try something new.” - Thomas J. Watson
It didn't take *that* long for some IBM suits to put their head on the block for virtual worlds. But most people don't know that the IBM onslaught into Second Life was actually led by individuals with a passion and some forward thinking, not a top-down strategy, and that may be the best strategy lesson that was not told. If some of these IBMers, rather than Collin Parris, had addressed the conference I expect the discussion would have been more lively, engaging and not laden with big blue speak, jargon and a lesson on value chains which sounds vaguely like the old IBM strategy, with just a new "D"imension.

IBM had a chance to impress the attendees with their VW expertise when a question was raised as to whether there was anything that small businesses could learn from what the large businesses are doing in virtual worlds but the answer was "No, it's too early to tell". No?!? If you asked that question -- call, Skype, email, Linked In, Twitter or smoke signal me and let's talk. There are plenty of lessons learned to date, even in these primordial times.
"What is reality anyway! It's nothing but a collective hunch." - Jane Wagner, The Search for Signs of Intelligent Life in the Universe
My largest and possibly most depressing discovery from this Virtual Worlds conference, is that collectively we have no definition for the entity we call "virtual worlds". More than once MySpace was touted as "the largest virtual world" which to me is a resounding call for at least a collective consciousness instead of the collective hunches about this emerging platform. I've been working on my own definition which will be the subject of a future post once I've drawn the pretty graphics.

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