The Harvard Business Review on data-mining virtual worlds for fun and profit

The Harvard Business Review has discovered online worlds and avatars —- and, in this piece online here, is set palpably drooling at the marketing opportunities therein. It’s a pretty funny piece; since it’s written for biz-dev weasels who are total n00bs to gaming culture, the authors are forced to adopt the instantly-recognizable prose style of much mainstream gaming writing: Paper-dry, Britannica-class descriptions of the freaky weirdos they encounter (people who wear “provocative” outfits in Second Life! Or even dress as — get this — animals!)

Anyway, the point is, once the article is finished with its obligatory Andy-Rooney spit-takes, it makes some points both fascinating and horrifying. Avatar-based worlds, they point out, are a terrific way to understand what your consumer wants, because as Henry Jenkins notes in a quote, “Marketing depends on soliciting people’s dreams, and here those dreams are on overt display.” Then there’s the matter of the growing piles of greenbacks people are spending online: $5 million in US dollar equivalents each month for avatar-to-avatar virtual purchases in Second Life alone. But where the lid really rips off, the authors note, is in data collection. In a virtual world, everything an avatar does — literally everything — is loggable and monitorable. Thus …

… the amount of marketing and purchasing data that could be mined is staggering. An avatar’s digital nature means that every one of its moves — for example, perusing products in a store and discussing them with a friend — can be tracked and logged in a database. This behavioral information, organized by individual avatar, aside from being priceless to marketers in the long term, could be processed immediately. An avatar clerk might appear from behind the counter and offer to answer an avatar customer’s question — questions the clerk would already know because they would have been gathered and recorded in the database.

Furthermore, the avatar clerk might automatically adjust his or her behavior to become more appealing to the avatar customer. Research conducted at Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab has found that users are more strongly influenced by avatars who mimic their own avatars’ body movements and mirror their own appearance. This virtual manifestation of an old sales trick makes avatars potentially, if insidiously, powerful salespeople. Using a simple computer script, the selling avatar clerk is able to subtly and automatically tailor its behavior — its gait, the way it turns its head, its facial features — to the avatar buyer’s, thus making the clerk seem more friendly, interesting, honest, and persuasive.

Jesus, now even the marketing trolls are reading and quoting Snow Crash. We’re doomed.

(Thanks to El Rey for this one!)

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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