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Advertising in the Age of Avatars

August 28, 2008

New research by MTV Networks, discussed in a recent online marketing council, begins to track consumer behavior in virtual worlds linked to media properties.

Does advertising in virtual worlds on the web have tangible rewards? Do the consumers who create avatars there become more engaged with a brand? And how much does it matter if the communities are built around a TV program that participants watch?

A new study by MTV Networks is starting to shed some light on questions like these. At the ARF’s Online Marketing Council held in New York City on August 27, Todd Cunningham, a senior vice president of brand strategy and planning at MTV Networks, shared some of the preliminary insights from “Catch Me Across Platforms,” which looks at consumers’ behavior in Virtual Hills. The network has built the virtual world for fans of The Hills, the popular reality show about ambitious young music and fashion types in the Hollywood Hills.

The new research drills down to how consumers who attend Brand X, an increasingly popular virtual nightclub in Virtual Hills, are interacting with the brand over time and how their usage of emoticons associated with the nightclub brand reflected their levels of engagement with the show. “We wanted to explain how the range of consumer behaviors is actually happening and why,” said Cunningham. MTV doesn’t advertise to attract participants to the virtual community, meaning the research offers an idea of how consumer behavior in such worlds develops naturally, he noted. “If they come, they’re coming on their own motivation,” said Cunningham.

One initial finding worth noting: Only a small percentage of viewers in the study created avatars in the online community, but the ones who did reported higher satisfaction with the show. “This clearly demonstrates that fewer and fewer people can be of higher and higher value,” said Cunningham. “Degrees of engagement matter. We can’t treat all eyeballs as equal.” MTV Networks also found that items that virtual world participants can use on an ongoing basis, such as branded T-shirts for their avatars, have a positive effect on engagement.

MTV is just beginning to share some of its new research findings with advertisers, who are increasingly looking to virtual worlds as a way to engage consumers online, said Cunningham. “Some marketers are trying to experiment,” he said. “Some are well known for showing up in unexpected places. This is the perfect kind of venue for that to happen. Most marketers are coming to media-based virtual worlds to grow and understand what is it like when the consumer truly wants to interact.”

MTV will be continuing the research. While virtual worlds have been around for years, Cunningham noted, they haven’t become part of media properties until recently. “We’re actively learning,” he said. “It teaches us a lot about other media as we move forward, not just about virtual worlds.”

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