The Engage Expo, formerly Virtual Worlds, took place this year at the Jacob Javitz Center, New York. Begun in 2007, this conference is an opportunity for those involved with virtual (computer) worlds, social media, toys, games, and virtual goods to share information and network.
Think games and social interaction with avatars, but don’t forget the cha-ching of selling virtual products linked not only to virtual worlds but also linked to products and people in the “real” world. Add the sale of tangible product through these same virtual/3D web sites, and you have a dynamic marketing, branding and sales combination.
Show founder Christopher Sherman feels the show is a particularly important gathering this year. “When times are as tight as they are,” he stated in his welcoming letter to attendees, “it becomes all the more important to innovate.” And innovating they are. Of special interest to those of us in the marketing world- irrespective of our understanding and appreciation for 3D and Virtual Worlds- is how this media can be used to fully exploit intellectual property by fully engaging the consumer.
“The optimum combination for fully engaging the consumer,” Jouni Keranen of iLemon ( www.iLemon.com ) offered, “is to provide the very best in virtual product and also combine products that might actually be received in the home.” Think a special virtual item that is contained in the users virtual room that ties to that same item sent via snail mail to the same individual’s home (like a poster, for example). Related, show topic tracks focused on how technology providers can help with engaging children, exploring virtual goods and gifts, and engaging youth.
Keranen was part of a panel of speakers titled “Music Goes 3D: The Music Industry’s Next Great Frontier.” Keranen was pinch-hitting for one of the speakers who’d had to cancel, last-minute. However, he was a great choice since, due to his prior experience with Habbo Hotel, the worlds largest virtual world, he was able to fully tie in the cross-pollination aspect. “In sports, gaming, religion, or music, this technology is very popular,” Keranen said. “As far as in the world of music, there is the opportunity for users to be ‘stars,’ holding singing parties (virtually), and also becoming contest winners just like one might see on the television show “American Idol”- only without any travel.”
Sibley Verbeck, founder and CEO of The Electric Sheep Company (www.electricsheepcompany.com), also participated in this panel as a last-minute request. He and Thom Kidrin, president/CEO of Worlds.com Inc., rounded out the panel with moderator and industry consultant John Swords. ( www.johnswords.com ).
“The exciting thing about sites like MySpace was that teens were sharing their music,” Verbeck said. “The (virtual and 3D environments) will allow users to play bigger roles in this sharing, such as “dancing” with virtual partners.” Verbeck knows a thing or two about being on the cutting edge; his firm worked with the creators of the television show CSI- New York to produce two back-to-back episodes that involved audience virtual interaction to solve a murder.
“For performing artists and record companies, we see opportunities for really reaching fans directly,” Kidron offered, describing past ventures with recording artists such as David Bowie. “With new technologies available, we’re no longer limited as before, back in those days, when we had 25 meg files and (users were on) dial-up (Internet connections). We’ve seen so many developments even, say, during the time we were working with Lennie Kravitz. Now the expectations are even higher for mass market- particularly with users matriculating out of videogames.”
Kidron’s firm helps create additional revenue streams and fan experiences for music industry clients. He described Worlds.com as having the philosophy that the virtual environment is a performer’s tool for not only promotion but also fan engagement- and that participation in this environment requires constant interaction or virtual “appearances” by the celebrity. “You can’t just slap up a site and let anyone be on it,” he said. “The celebrity needs to ‘be’ there on a regular basis.”
Kidron’s firm’s just-announced strategic partnership with famed rapper Darryl “DMC” McDaniels ( www.me-dmc.com ) certainly fits that bill since the site they’ve designed for him replicates the actual venues from DMC’s personal and professional life as a Hip Hop artist- parties on a New York City rooftop, backstage at a concert, a night at a Hip Hop club, etc. And McDaniels, himself, confirmed his commitment with delight. (Look for the site launch March 31st 2009.)
“I am just buggin’!” McDaniels told me as he described his role with his new virtual site. “There’s so many possibilities to (this site) now. When the developers first brought it to me, it was only a few plain rooms with nothing going on. Now (and he’d just seen it that day) it has a room where I can show off (visitors’) graffiti. I can have a whole room for that. I have a poetry slam room. We’re going to do a contest for that. And I have a history room
And McDaniels truly was buggin’- his enthusiasm was obvious as we talked further about the possibilities of the site also promoting the Felix Organization, a group he co-founded to support orphaned/adopted children. Additionally, from a fan engagement standpoint, the site is stellar in that the performer can also actually collaborate with would-be musicians.
“I can put a call out for new music,” McDaniels beamed, “and I can invite people to send in tracks. If the tracks are good, I could even (market) them.” As well, McDaniels can collaborate with other professional musicians without even traveling. “If I needed a drummer, say, who was (on the West Coast) we could still ‘play’ together,” he added, tapping me on the leg. Gotta say, this excites the Green part of my brain since, if everyone “rehearsed” virtually, we’d make huge advances in reducing quite a few carbon footprints. Of course, from a sales and marketing standpoint, the site will also provide the performer with a certain degree of independence.
“Even without a recording contract,” Kidron advised, “ RUN DMC can sell product directly while also offering continual interaction.” Those of us not yet fully initiated to the virtual community and media can nevertheless understand the value in cross-promotion of people and goods by way of youngsters’ attachment to items they see on-screen. And while, for some, the virtual community might have a bad rap to overcome (via “nerdy” labels or assumptions of ease of inclusion of pornography), this media is also widely deployed for educational purposes.
“Our customers include the United Nations, Cornell University, the Canadian Ministry of Education, Loyola University and many many others,” JP McCormick, CFO of Activeworlds.com told me. Activeworlds ( www.Activeworlds.com ) provides interactive software products and services to provide user access and use of Internet 3D environments. McCormick had much to say regarding any negative image of virtual worlds. “While we cannot guarantee that everyone purchasing our products will not be creating a site that has any type of activity considered ‘pornographic,’” he said, “we would never align ourselves with anyone doing something like that,” adding that, unfortunately, “but it’s just like no one knows what a customer is doing with, say, a purchase of a software program like PhotoShop.” Activeworlds, Inc. has received accolades from Industry Standard, Bloomberg TV, Time magazine and others, and their strong presence at the show would indicate that this media is something to be on everyone’s radar screen. Although this is not a “new idea,” more and more established companies are now looking with greater interest into this media avenue (and selling machine) as a way to gain footholds in their markets.
“The (Virtual Worlds) industry didn’t ‘make it’ the first time around,” David Post, chairman of Nextpert News Network ( www.nextpert.com ) told me. He should know. Post had dipped his big toe into the pool a few years ago, contemplating starting a children’s site. He’s subsequently changed his target market- to “experienced male users,” newbies, and what he calls “Amazons,” women who have a certain “something.” Sounds mysterious, sure, but his approach to business doesn’t. Post and his firm announced at the conference the launch of their “ Next Island” virtual world. And timing, as they say, is everything.
Remember Diet Rite Cola? Bet not, but I’m sure you remember Diet Coke and Diet Pepsi, brands that were armed and ready for launch once they’d let competitor spend their marketing and advertising dollars trying to create a demand for something called a “diet soda.” Same thing here: Virtual World creators have slogged for years, engendering Internet users' fondness for the 3D and virtual communities. Now that other, "bigger" media are taking a gander at what is becoming very “hot” in the children’s and teen’s market (think virtual pets and the like) - and by “bigger” media I mean television and film- VW marketing is becoming a respectable entity in which even players like Sony and Columbia Pictures are involved, and in which networks like CBS are making investments.
The excitement at the conference was definitely contagious. After a day with these deep-thinking computer pioneers, even this dyed-in-the-wool book-loving (as in the paper variety) author gave a second thought to taking another look at the Kindle. As Amazon honcho Jeff Bizos was trying to convey recently (as a support to doing away with the book), “we have, as book readers, an association with all those worlds these authors have created. Those are only virtual worlds…” which, I suppose, can be replicated anywhere including a computer screen.
It will be interesting to see where the “virtual” might take us.
copyright 2009 M. D. Caprario
M.D. Caprario is a writer/editor working in Los Angeles, New York, and San Francisco covering all that is good in the world of entertainment (books, film, television). Reach her at [email protected].