September 27, 2007, 12:00 AM

Customer as avatar

(Page 3 of 3)

Virtual worlds aren’t for every marketer, at least not now. Retailer American Apparel, which had sold T-shirts for avatars, closed the shop it had opened in Second Life and declined to be interviewed, citing a regulatory quiet period as it prepares to go public. Starwood Hotel Group pulled out of the hotel it had created on Second Life, saying it had gotten the market research information it was looking for, and donated its land there to the Second Life community.

But there may have been other factors worth mentioning for marketers eyeing virtual worlds. An “if you build it, they will come” approach doesn’t fly here. The service or product offered in Second Life must have some real value in the virtual environment. In the case of the closed hotel, “No one goes to Second Life to watch their avatar sleep-it’s not any fun,” says Ross of InterContinental Hotels.

Brian Haven, senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc., says retailers should see virtual worlds as a new market and not simply another channel: more like entering a foreign country than migrating shoppers from catalogs to the web. And some retailers just aren’t there yet. “I get a lot of calls about Second Life. But if you don’t understand blogs and social networks yet, you’re not ready for virtual worlds,” Haven says.

The best is yet to come

That said, do Second Life and worlds like it represent the next era of the web? Three years from now, will business be laughing at the retailers that thought they wouldn’t need a presence there? Time will tell, but the answer hinges partly on whether virtual worlds ultimately provide advantages to shoppers that aren’t available in other mediums, much as the web brought features to shopping that can’t be duplicated offline.

“The next phase will be for native differentiators to emerge in Second Life-things you can’t do in the physical world, but which make a virtual world experience much better,” Ross says. “I don’t know what those are yet because this is still new.”

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