A Bold Experiment

Young adults are a core target demographic for new checking accounts, educational financing and car loans. So, as Marketing Sherpa reports, in addition to targeted promotions with educational institutions, Wells Fargo & Co. began to work on ways to make the brand more cutting edge, and, in September 2005, they launched a “virtual world.”  Stephanie Smith, Sr. VP Online Sales and Marketing Division, says:

“Going in, we weren’t tied to the idea that the virtual world or gaming community was going to convert lifetime customers in the traditional marketing sense.  We thought it was an opportunity to engage in soft-sell education with a demographic who we’d be communicating with in the context of their environment. And we wanted to continue our tradition of embracing emerging technology and mediums.”

Five Campaign Tactics

Tactic #1. Brand consistency – “Stagecoach Island.”:  The end goal was to eventually incorporate the virtual world medium into the multichannel strategy, synching up with other Internet components, customer support call center, television, radio and billboard. They included the 150 year-old stagecoach logo  to maintain brand consistency, and called their virtual world “Stagecoach Island.”

Tactic #2. Email notification and download app

To get the word out to their young demographic, “Stagecoach Island” was mentioned in email campaigns and in a display ad on the Wells Fargo website. Those who chose to join the community needed to download software and begin orientation steps such as selecting a screen name and avatar. Users must be at least 14 years old and provide their first name, last name, email address and ZIP Code. Once inside, users receive $50 virtual cash to spend on clothing, shoes and other items. To make the game interesting, they also added bigger-ticket items, including concerts, parties, dancing, skydiving and, most recently, home construction.

They also incorporated other games and activities to keep users interested:

  • Motorbike racing track
  • Parachute competitions
  • Fireworks display

They also added more lessons on budgeting, shopping expenses and renting an apartment.

“Tens of thousands of participants” have downloaded the app and played the game, Smith says. “We’re seeing if an experiential medium can engage college-age consumers. We believe it can. It’s allowing us to interact with a different set of consumers than we most often reach.”

Tactic #3. Brand education

The financial aspect was brought to the virtual world through a “Learning Lounge” where players can visit an ATM and earn virtual money to be used to buy those big-ticket items by answering questions about banking and personal finance.  199 users have played the game enough to become virtual millionaires.

“We think it’s highly beneficial that they are learning as much as they are about financial situations while interacting with the brand,” Smith says. “We are learning what it means to run a multi-role-player game. The next step is to figure out how to tie this into offline activities. We’ve been amazed at the very positive and strong reactions we’ve gotten from the Learning Lounge games.”

Tactic #4. Blog support

A blog site mimicking the virtual world’s design was added so users could learn about the island’s current events, such as where people are building their homes on the island. One post inquired about a lack of water supply and engaged other users in a discussion about global warming. A moderator  approves posts and manages the content. A section dedicated to the topic of student loans was included to address some of the issues and anxieties young lenders have about entering the market.

Tactic #5. Search map icon

Map-based local searches via Google, MSN, Yahoo! and AOL using organic and paid search efforts, have been used to establish high rankings in local markets. To set themselves apart from other financial query results, they employ favicons in the maps, which consist of the company logo appearing next to search listings and inside the search maps. Regular maps query results in the financials category only show location with the generic bubble-tacks.

“It visually differentiates us,” Smith says. “Increasingly, what we have seen is that more and more search is local. People are looking for things in their physical environment that are within driving distance. Well, the question was: ‘If search is local, what can we do to make it more impacting, more targeted and more focused?’ “

You can see Wells Fargo’s virtual world here: http://blog.wellsfargo.com/StagecoachIsland/

Some Virtual World Considerations

The fledgling virtual world is all about richness of experience, and the medium is still evolving. A word of caution: surveys have found that many Second Life members are extremely sensitive about marketing messages. Some Second Life “citizens” created the “Second Life Liberation Army” to protest the increasing presence of brands. Only 7% said it had a positive influence on brand image and their future buying behavior.

Five tips from Marketing Sherpa

Navigating through these virtual worlds can be tricky. Thankfully, we have five recommendations from marketing and virtual guru Wayne Porter for those interested in getting into this space:

  1. It’s important to understand the fabric of the 3D virtual space (“metaverse”) before getting in. Spend significant time using an avatar to participate in exploration and talking with other members. People, functioning as avatars, do not always respond to situations the same as they would in real life.
  2. The metaverse is based on a global population, which means there is no traditional market segmentation. Players will include people of all ages from the US, Europe, and Asia.  Targeting a consumer demographic can be difficult, and actions can easily be misinterpreted. The avatar form, language and communication will need to be different in varying countries.
  3. Do not mistake it for a game platform, since there are no preset goals or quests. It is a social platform that gives people an outlet to socialize, travel and take part in activities.
  4. It’s still early for brands to begin large-scale marketing Before trying to buy and sell or advertise, consider building your brand by helping the citizens solve some of the unique problems common in Second Life, for example, providing how-to info and advice on digital rights management.
  5. Avoid destroying part of the local economy. For example, if the development of in-world vehicles is featured, a real life automobile manufacturer might drop  a new line of cars into the game for the sake of branding, which could spread ill-will among some of the metaverse’s individuals who have been making, customizing and selling the cars. One solution is that you may want to allow them to offer dealerships at a nominal cost.

Are You Prepared for the Commitment?

Any marketer exploring the new medium of virtual worlds and 3D social environments knows that they’re growing every day. Experiential marketplaces, such as Second Life and Whyville, each have members totaling into the millions.

But this space is essentially at the same point that ecommerce or banner ads were circa 1994. And, despite the media attention about virtual worlds, they’re still so new people don’t know what to expect.

What you can expect is to commit a lot of time and money for a branding effect. The setup fee for a Second Life island is estimated at $1,675, and rent, $295 a month, but software and creative costs can push the price tag into the tens of thousands of dollars.

On the positive side, virtual world has advantages over placement in video games. Raz Schionning, Web Director American Apparel, was considering buying high-profile (and costly) placement in video games more than a year ago, but he ultimately gave up on the notion because of the medium’s costliness and uncertain tracking abilities.

“I discovered the unfortunate possibility of spending a lot of budget in getting together an ad for a game that might flop. What would be the point of that? The game developers need the money upfront, and they cannot give [satisfactory] impressions results. That eventually led us to Second Life.”

With a shoe-string budget, they worked with a 3D vendor to create a storefront that let virtual members purchase images of American Apparel clothing for their avatars at $1 apiece. Viewers could also click on the avatar to go the online store to buy real clothes. Since June 2006, they’ve sold more than 10,000 clothing images. Schionning says, “We’ll probably be close to breaking even for the total investment for the first year — and we’ll be very happy with that result — because this was really about getting the brand into the space before everyone else is already there,” Schionning says.

Snap principle of virtual world marketing:

Make sure you have the time and money to commit to a tentative play for brand awareness.