Virtual worlds can translate into real world sales: Virtual Worlds conference

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NEW YORK - Converging the real world with virtual worlds is a new opportunity for marketers to engage customers directly, according to panels at yesterday's first annual Virtual World's conference.

In a panel called "Integrated Marketing: Merging Virtual Worlds with Real World Activities," industry executives discussed the multichannel retail potential in creating products within virtual world that are then marketed offline and vice versa.

"I think that virtual worlds are going to change e-commerce and enable a shift from making online purchases to going shopping online," said Paul Hemp, senior editor of the Harvard Business Review. "Shopping is a social experience and these worlds recreate this social experience for shopping in a new way."

Nike, Levi's and Addidas have all offered products that have merged the virtual and the real. Interestingly sometimes the virtual versions become collectible and more valuable than the physical goods, earning high bids on eBay.

But this multichannel marketing of products between the real and the virtual worlds does not just apply to the retail space. Roger Holzberg, vice president and creative director at Walt Disney Parks and Resorts Online, discussed how Disney has built online worlds to draw consumers to the real world amusement parks. Disney's virtual worlds were used in conjunction with other online sites to draw tweens into the real life parks and vice versa.

"Knowing that virtual worlds are not the only channel to talk to tweens in," Mr. Holzberg said. "So we created promotions and games in virtual worlds where players would have to visit our other sites to win. Many of these games were encouraging tweens to come into our parks, and in the parks there were kiosks for the virtual worlds as well."

One major concern that marketers face when direct marketing in the virtual world is whether to target the avatar or the real person behind the avatar, who are sometimes not the same demographic. A middle-aged man could have a teenage girl character in a virtual world - two considerably different demographics.

There were mixed opinions on whether or not this mattered. Some panelists considered the consumer behind the avatar the most important, as he/she is the one controlling the purse strings. Others considered the avatar the consumer in need.

"It is important to consider what the need states of the avatar is," said Joel Greenberg, senior planner at the Electric Sheep Company. "This may require some market research or communications with the consumer themselves."

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