Psst, Have You Heard?

Daily, thousands of people play on SecondLife.com, an Internet-based virtual world. Although Second Life is often considered a game, it doesn’t have winners, losers or points. Why? It’s all about the experience.

Users create their own on-screen graphic characters, called “avatars” or “residents,” and visit this role-playing, interactive world almost as if it were a real place. People control these avatars in order to socialize, attend virtual events such as art galleries and even shop using real U.S. dollars.

Over the past year, retailers such as American Apparel have set up virtual shops on Second Life, allowing users to buy virtual clothing for their avatars. As a result, people began cultivating their identity by outfitting their avatars with brand names. But not everyone in this cyberworld was pleased.

On Oct. 5, 2006, a group of avatars called the Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA) rebelled against the number of brands entering the space. The target? Second Life’s virtual Reebok store.

On a normal day, users visit Reebok to customize shoes for themselves or their avatar. On this particular day, however, the brand was under siege. SLLA positioned a female avatar holding a machine gun outside of the location to prevent anyone from entering for 24 hours.

Word about the event circulated fast throughout the interactive world. A clip of the attack was even uploaded onto popular video site YouTube. Friends told friends who told friends.

The next day, when the army left and the store reopened, a wave of curious avatars flooded the store.

“The buzz attracted so much attention that Reebok’s traffic completely doubled that day,” said Sarah Fay, president of Isobar U.S., the digital-marketing firm that created Reebok’s SecondLife.com virtual experience. Fay spoke at the Shop.org conference in Orlando, Fla., last month. “When people heard about this, they wanted to be a part of it.”

Fay said that relying on this phenomenon is a part of a new dynamic social aspect that links credibility to a brand.

“We’re finding that the brands that win are the ones that have consumers telling their friends the best stories, rather than those companies who tell [their own] best stories to consumers,” she said. “We’re essentially allowing people to be our vendors by letting them play a role within the brand and message. This provides a whole new frontier of marketing and different opportunities of where to sell.”

Building a retail community: Like Reebok, Adidas turned to Isobar to take advantage of the social medium.

As a sponsor of the 2006 World Cup, Adidas wanted to become a part of online identities while promoting the soccer event. “We created MySpace Adidas soccer site where people went to learn about soccer stars, download screensavers and wallpaper, and upload personal videos and images,” Fay said. Visitors could even superimpose their picture onto the body of an Adidas-clad player to enhance their own online presence.

Although the site did see a conversion rate, the effort was not motivated by sales. “We did drive sales and sold a lot of shoes on the site,” she said. “But it was about so much more.”

In six weeks, the site saw 1 million page views, and Adidas created 55,000 “friends.” As users network on Adidas’ MySpace site, each person gets a photo link to his or her new “friend’s” profile and an Adidas icon appears on the member’s profile page.

“Although these may not seem like large numbers in the e-commerce world, it’s all about the ramification factor,” she said. “If those 5,000 people had 10 friends, the audience becomes that much bigger. And the message is that much more powerful because they are sending the messages directly to each other.”

Visitor feedback was also valuable, Fay said. Users commented on what they wanted more of, such as giveaways and information, and even wrote, “Puma and Nike have nothing on your great site.”

It’s evident that new marketing techniques are already working in this space. Now, according to Fay, “You just have to go there.”

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