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Virtual Reality Worlds: The Hows and Whys of This Unique Marketing Universe

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Marketing using virtual reality worlds and methods is one of the more advanced Web-3.0 tactics that you can use to generate leads, close business, even to communicate with your team. It also takes the biggest time commitment, requiring the most work and the largest initial expense to get the platform designed. The upside: when put into place, these 3-D worlds can prove to be your most effective lead generator, sale closer, and cost saver.

Let me take a step back now that I have your eyes curious, your ears more attentive and your full attention. Virtual reality worlds are just that. They are 3-D, Web-based communities that allow interaction among users and devices by way of the Internet.

In general, virtual reality has a variety of uses. The whole intent of virtual reality is to convince you and your mind that you're actually there, alive in this make-believe world. It brings the experience and interaction to life, even though you are behind a computer or another device and not there live, in person.

Picture this:

•3-D people walking around, interacting and talking. They don't really exist, but they represent people who do in some way.
• Communication using webcams, headsets, microphones and text chat.
• People from all walks of life and from around the world who might never have met otherwise.
• Houses decked out with all the latest electronics.
• The ability to walk around, drive cars, purchase goods and services and do pretty much anything you would do in your actual life.
• A world that seems so real, you start thinking it is real.

Sometimes your mind continues to believe this can't be real, it isn't real, and it's fake. It will take some conditioning of your mind (after you start engaging in these virtual worlds) to understand the concept.

Here are some of the common myths of virtual reality worlds:

• Everyone is fake or acts fake. Eighty-four percent of people reported that when they join the various virtual worlds, they create people -- avatars -- that represent themselves. Yes, that does leave 16% of avatars who are not entirely representative of their true selves. Typically these people make minor adjustments, rather than entire modifications of their real persona.
• It's nowhere near real life. Many times this is more like real life than your own real life. People host parties and business events. Attend trainings. Interview for jobs. Shop. Practice foreign languages. Work in global teams. All virtually.
• It's only for kids. The average age across most virtual reality worlds is just over 30.
The only thing to do in these communities is play games. Yes, you can play games, but this is only a small fraction of what's done in these worlds.

Why should you care?

Here are the key driving factors to the rise in virtual reality usage:

• Limited time.
• Less discretionary income (across the map).
• Further adoption of the Web by everyone, including consumers, businesses and even the government.
• It's user-generated content.

People, businesses and agencies are continuing to move to using virtual reality worlds because they are tired of traveling, have less money to spend on travel, and are realizing the power associated in these worlds. My motto is, "Essentially everything that can be done in person can be done over the Web using various technologies." This is the concept that people are finally starting to understand. Everything continues to move to the web. So instead of simply resisting, both consumers and businesses are starting to jump on the bandwagon. An additional factor that has helped the rise of virtual reality worlds is their ease of use. Two to three years ago you needed to have a very fast computer and connection just to view one of these worlds. Today things open up much quicker and are much more intuitive.

Anything you would want to do in person (yes, everything) can be done over the Web in the comfort of your own home or office. Why do you think Amazon.com had one of its best holiday seasons ever in 2008, while Circuit City closed its doors? Granted, there were a variety of outside factors as to why Circuit City failed. But from the customer's perspective, if I can buy the same products on Amazon.com and save time and money (including sales tax and shipping charges), there is absolutely no need for me to visit a real store, deal with a salesclerk who probably doesn't know what he's talking about, stand in line, and risk having my credit card information misappropriated. And so, virtual reality-world usage continues to climb. According to The Gartner Group, it's anticipated for over 250 million people to be in virtual worlds by 2011.

There are hundreds of popular virtual communities and worlds with thousands of users in existence that are much less popular. Let's zero in on the most popular ones that you need to be concerned with.

There are a variety of common threads among most virtual worlds:

• Typically they are run by user-generated content rather then people at the particular company adding content.
• Users can purchase and own virtual land.
• Currency can be exchanged and typically needs to be converted.
• There are various e-commerce applications and functionality so you're able to buy products and services in real time.
• They are regulated to comply with the various, real, international laws.

Here are some of the virtual-world terms you should be aware of:

Avatars: The term is derived from Sanskrit and relates to a "mental traveler" in Indian fairy tales. In the virtual world, it is the character you use to represent yourself and communicate with others.
Community: The people or residents who inhabit the virtual space.
Currency: Most of the virtual worlds have their own form of currency which typically can be converted into USD or other forms of real money.
Emotes: Expressing emotions in a virtual world (laughing, crying, smiling, etc.).
Grid: The technology and platform behind the virtual world.
Latency: The lag of movements in motion. It's measured in the delay of the actual change of position versus the response time. The faster your computer and Internet connection, the lower the latency you will experience.
Teleport: The ability to fly to another location in the virtual space.
Universe: The collection of all entities and the space they are embedded in for a virtual world. Each virtual reality site has it's own "universe" so to speak.

Here are some of the most popular and growing Virtual Reality Worlds:

SecondLife.com

Let's start with the community that has received the most media attention. SecondLife.com does not have the largest amount of registered users, but it has received more media coverage than most of the other major players as they have poured money into PR and have also had some notable people use their site.

Second Life was launched in June 2003 by Linden Labs. It allows its residents to interact with each other, socialize, conduct business, and so on, across its grid. You must be 18 or older to use Second Life, and between the ages of 13 and 18 to use Teen Second Life. This is an important distinction for marketing purposes to know that users are 18 and older. They have over 15 million registered users.

Registration is free for personal use. If you want to purchase land, there are monthly fees ranging from $5 to $295 per month, depending on the amount of space you are looking to purchase. For $295, you can have your own private island. A big advantage to purchasing land is to start controlling the marketing space. Most of your competitors will not be on these virtual sites. Get your land before them.

Much like the other virtual worlds that will be outlined below, currency can be exchanged. In Second Life the currency used is Linden dollars. The exchange rate from Linden dollars to USD and to other currencies varies based on market factors -- buy and sell rates.

There have been live concerts in Second Life, government embassies established and education and training going on pretty much 24/7, just to name a few of the applications. Keep a close watch on this virtual reality world, as it has the most potential for continued and massive growth.

ActiveWorlds.com

Active Worlds is a little bit different than the rest. It is a 3-D world platform with a browser that runs on Windows. (Yes, this helps Bill Gates' wallet grow even larger!) Originally, Active Worlds' programmers wanted to integrate a 3-D browser. Think of Firefox or Internet Explorer in 3-D. Instead, it has morphed into another Second Life.

For consumers, they can play around with their avatar in one of the 1,000 different worlds across the platform, interacting with each other, playing games or purchasing goods and services.

For businesses, this has been a solid platform to develop buzz, sell products, support customers and to provide demos and training.

The advantage of ActiveWorlds.com over SecondLife.com is that the cost to develop a presence is easier and much less expensive. To develop a full-blown store on SecondLife.com you are looking at upwards of $5000-$10,000 or more. Your time to market will be much quicker than on SecondLife.com. They also are very business-centric. They understand virtual reality-world marketing is growing in popularity and have catered many of their offerings and support to businesses while making it effortless for consumers to buy They are trying to bring the Amazon.com experience to their virtual world!

EntropiaUniverse.com

Entropia Universe is in a different league than the rest as they have a real cash economy. Some consider this a good thing, others do not. Entropia Universe is an online, 3-D, virtual universe for entertainment, social interaction and trade, using a real-cash economy. The virtual world was developed by the Swedish software company MindArk, based in Gothenburg. What MindArk really understands is monetization. Instead of charging a subscription price, they use an alternate micropayment model, asking people to buy in-game currency (the PED) which then, in turn, can be exchanged back to USD.

MindArk claims to offer the first virtual universe with a real-cash economy. They want people coming to the site to spend money, rather than just to be playing around. And this is stressed across their website and promotional materials.

Entropia Universe has been quite busy attracting various businesses and even government entities. In May 2007, they were chosen by the Beijing Municipal People's Government endorsed online-entertainment company, Cyber Recreation Development Corporation, to create a cash-based virtual economy for China. This is huge in terms of adoption and possible numbers. They have been working toward creating the largest virtual world ever. Their proposal was accepted over many others, most notably Second Life. This was a blow to Second Life as they assumed they were the front runner! Entropia Universe has a goal to attract 150 million users from around the globe. Even more impressive, they expect to generate over $1 billion annually in commerce.

But this is not the go-to place for business meetings. Instead, it has been a good place for entrepreneurs to sell their E-Commerce products and services to consumers and businesses.

But, to date, they have some new plans in the works to make the site less gaming-intensive and more centered on business. Check out the site for free and get a feel for it, but don't make a major investment of your time or money just yet.

The above is an adapted excerpt from the book "Marketing in the Moment: The Practical Guide to Using Web 3.0 Marketing to Reach Your Customers First" by Michael Tasner. The above excerpt is a digitally scanned reproduction of text from print. Although this excerpt has been proofread, occasional errors may appear due to the scanning process. Please refer to the finished book for accuracy.

Copyright © 2010 Michael Tasner, author of "Marketing in the Moment: The Practical Guide to Using Web 3.0 Marketing to Reach Your Customers First"

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