A Marketer’s Blindness: Avatars Don’t Lie

Avatars-ZimmerHaving myself been quoted out of context and wishing I could die over it, I’m working very hard to give Mark Hughes of Buzz Marketing the benefit of the doubt. But I’m having a hard time coming up with a scenario in which a smart, savvy marketer would legitimately say this today:

“The people in Second Life, they aren’t worth reaching. It’s just a weird place. It’s never gonna catch on. It’s a fad, not a fashion at all.”

I’ll give him that Second Life may be fleeting in its fame, and it is kind of a weird place.  But did he just tell me I was a consumer not worth reaching?

The context was a story on the economy of Second Life by Janet Babin that aired today on America Public Media’s radio show, Marketplace.  By public radio’s, and Marketplace’s standards it was a pretty poorly framed story.

Avatars-ZimmerYou might expect me to be indignant and riff on the legitimacy of the people in SL.  But like anyone who is the least bit involved in SL I’m dismissing Mr. Hughes’ comment as uninformed about the place and the people.  I’ll also bypass the opportunity to wax poetic about the power of word-of-mouth.

What amazes me on a broader scale is a marketer, any marketer, who dismisses the opportunity to look straight into the heart – the very soul – of its customer and deem that as not worth the effort.

The avatar is art – created from the mind, heart, subconscious, conscious, yearning, aspirations, personality, context, experience of its owner.  All that is on display as a virtual person, a created object or an entire simulation.   The avatar portrays various aspects of our identity, our self-image.  Over time, the avatar takes shape in ways the owner could not predict, sometimes for reasons the owner cannot articulate.

Avatars-ZimmerThe avatar is shaping the language we use, and therefore the way we think of our “self.”  We breathe “life” into something that is clearly not alive, and we endow it with characteristics that are in some part the “real” us – it could be nothing but.

We move – in our minds and in our language – effortlessly between the real and the animated self:   “I’m in Second Life.”   “I’m editing my appearance.”  “Be right back, have to take a call.”

Sherry Turkle, director of MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, renowned author and researcher, published an article 9 years ago inWired title “Who Am We?” in which she discusses this concept at length in relation to MUDs (Multi-User Dimensions).

“A 26-year-old clerical worker says, ‘I’m not one thing, I’m many things. Each part gets to be more fully expressed in MUDs than in the real world. So even though I play more than one self on MUDs, I feel more like ‘myself’ when I’m MUDding.’ In real life, this woman sees her world as too narrow to allow her to manifest certain aspects of the person she feels herself to be. Creating screen personae is thus an opportunity for self-expression, leading to her feeling more like her true self when decked out in an array of virtual masks.”

Marketers have spent billions researching our psyche for “real” motivations and our deepest longings in order to create products – or shape messages – that promise to enable the “real me.”  Now here we are in SL creating, shaping and discovering the “real us” for any one to see.

A smart, savvy marketer ought to be watching and listening.

Photo Credit:  Andromega and Gita Rau

Originally posted at my blog, Business Communicators in Virtuality, 2008

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