The latest Wired zine has a couple of insightful articles by Frank Rose on the fate of advertising in 3D video games and in Second Life. Since only the piece on Second Life is online, I'll use it to make the point. After reviewing disappointing user numbers in 2L (good for VR, three orders of magnitude below the Web), and the misadventures of some naive BigCo marketers hoping to cash in on its cachet, Rose comes round to his point:
"... the kind of digital marketing that actually works requires a conceptual leap. Successful online marketing is targeted and specific, like direct mail — but it's direct mail in a fun house, where the recipients can easily seize control of what the mail says, where it goes next, and how it gets there. You need to know how to buy up keywords to maximize search returns, how to make the most of recommendation engines, how to use the viral potential of Web video, how to monitor what's being said in blogs and message boards, how not to blow it by trying to be deceptive. Building a corporate pavilion in Second Life doesn't require any of these things. It's simple and it's obvious."
How tempting to forego the hard slogging and organizational transformation required to truly market in the digital domain, and instead hope that a literalist recreation of real life inside the machine will also recreate the old selling and buying patterns. This is an odd 21st century form of cargo cult in which the priests of old media marketing hope that simulacra of their old familiar world will bring them some valuable virtual payloads. In vain. VR is really an image of Faerie, not reality, and its denizens transport themselves to where the crowds and fun are gathered, bypassing the digital billboards and wannabe commercial pavilions and plazas. The price of successful marketing there is creating fun, not building virtual real estate.
As usual, the lunch is not free. The organizational change and trauma required to actually create and be fun are probably as severe as those required to become responsive to the demands of the Web based market. And for the pain of the latter you reach an audience with three more zeros in the number, and might actually deliver some value to those that become customers.
Though it's a thrill to finally see the combination of hardware and software virtuosity that make consumer VRs possible, there's a parallel argument to the above to be made at the platform level. Enthralled by the imagery, myth (Snowcrash, Neuromancer, et. al.) and technical sweetness of it all, financiers and engineers have over-invested in 3D worlds, hoping that a simulacrum of reality will summon up real users. And so it has, but in insufficient numbers to rise beyond the niche level.
Maybe it's time to call this a dead end, except for demonstrations of technical prowess. Outside the wannabe worlds, the virtual and real are becoming coextensive, one mobile device, WiFi hub, digicam and GPS receiver at a time. Gibson aside, the digital image of the first decade of the 21st century isn't a set of VR goggles, it's the white wires of iPod earbuds. The interpenetration of the electronic fabric with reality, giving it a tinge of magic, is the actual direction of change.
Update: There's a lengthy and well-informed discussion at Chris Anderson's blog. Other than being Mr. Long Tail, he's also the editor of Wired, and commissioned the piece by Frank Rose cited above.