Does Virtual World Advertising Work?

The debate over the value of advertising in the metaverse just got a lot more interesting. Earlier this month, I noted a survey which suggested that real world marketing in Second Life wasn’t working. That still seems largely true, but now a new study from Seattle-based Global Market Insite strongly implies that it’s not from lack of interest— which is, according to the firm’s report, surprisingly strong.

When asked, “Are you more likely to purchase/use a brand in real life that is represented in Second Life?”, 37% of SL users surveyed by GMI responded “Definitely”, while 41% responded “Maybe”. These numbers are in marked contrast to the report from the Hamburg-based research firm Komjuniti, in which 72% of SL users polled said they were disappointed with marketing efforts in Second Life. And where Komjuniti’s data was based on interviews with 200 SL Residents, GMI garnered this figure from 479 Residents, selected via a double opt-in process, GMI’s Jensen Gadley tells me, after e-mailing me their full raft of data.

Instead of asking the respondents what they thought of existing SL marketing, says Gadley, GMI asked them what they thought of it in principle. “The Komjuniti survey specifically asked people what they thought of advertising campaigns in Second Life,” he explains. “The problem is if you ask anyone point blank if they like advertising, in almost every medium, people are going to say no.” Instead, says Gadley, “We decided that since Second Life is such a new technology, asking people what they think of specific marketing and branding techniques wouldn’t tell us much about the platform’s potential.”

With that angle of attack, GMI came away with decidedly different answers. So the problem with SL marketing doesn’t seem to be rejection of advertising in general, just indifference to the kind of virtual advertising they’ve seen thus far.

These figures, of course, aren’t likely to resolve the larger debate over Second Life’s comparative value as a marketing platform.

After all, GMI’s study is taken from an extensive, multi-country survey of 9,529 respondents who were asked about their perceptions of Second Life, with only 5% reporting that they even had an SL account— hence the 479 who gave their specific responses to SL marketing and other topics. What’s more, 87% of those surveyed haven’t even considered creating one. This points to the relatively small number of total SL users, in relation to other online worlds— at this writing, about 500,000 regularly log in on a weekly basis. (Gaia Online, by contrast, has 2,000,000 monthly users, 10-20% of whom participated in a recent New Line marketing campaign, as compared to the 1% or less who’ll typically engage in an SL-based campaign.)

On the other side of the ledger, proponents of SL marketing are likely to point out the advertiser-friendly demographics compiled by GMI— 65% of Second Life users polled have a reported household income of $54,000 or more; 51% of them log in 6 hours or more a week.

So the debate over the ROI on SL advertising continues. To be sure, the real short term tension is desire versus reality. Because with few exceptions, most corporate-sponsored sites in Second Life are sparsely and intermittently attended.

And for the next year, at least, even the most effective Second Life campaigns will meaningfully reach an audience numbering in just the high five to mid six figures. (In other words, it’s comparable to boutique advertising on a popular blog.) And as SL marketers for the film 300 recently found out, that totally leaves aside the question of whether advertisers are comfortable with putting their products in all the surreal or disreputably grabass situations that Second Life’s content creation tools make possible.

(This is just a sampling, by the way, to what is easily the most extensive survey of consumer perception of Second Life I’ve seen thus far, everything from real world family demographics to moral boundaries for avatars— read GMI’s summary, and note the contact link there to get the whole thing.)

Update, 5/1: The full Resident opinion portion of the GMI survey is now on my SL blog.