02 April 2006

Selling Ads in a Parallel Universe

Before last Thursday, fifth grade was the last time I spent any meaningful time in an alternate universe.

In those pre-PC, pre-Internet days, hoofing it around the fantasy landscapes of Dungeons & Dragons required an active imagination and a crazy array of many-sided dice. When I've thought about new generations of virtual-reality games and my contemporaries who still play them, these 25 years later, I've thought that they are all, well, emotionally stuck in the fifth grade.

Then last week I sat alongside my colleague Lovisa as she opened for business FM's virtual ad-sales office in the Shipley district of Second Life. Second Life is the wildly popular virtual-reality community made by Linden Lab. By "wildly popular," I'm not referring to its reach (though, with 165,000 members, it ain't small). I'm talking about depth: The average member allegedly spends forty hours a month in world, as they say. Given that level of time investment, then, it shouldn't have surprised me (though it did) how much real money those players spend to enhance their experiences. Sources at Linden Lab tell me nearly 1000 Second Life members make a full-time living -- in the real world -- by selling services on the inside. Avatar and skin designers, virtual clothiers and real-estate moguls are among the in-world professional class. And as of last Thursday, when SL blogger Wagner James "Hamlet" Au sold us a plot of land and helped us hang a virtual shingle with FM's logo on it, you can add to that list "ad sales professionals." Mr. Au's New World Notes recently joined FM's portfolio of digital culture sites, and our new SL branch office is on the brink of its first transaction, valued at 13,500 Linden Dollars (the local currency), with one of the leading in-world fashion designers.

Relative to the L$3.3 billion financing round ($11 million to you and me, see Linden Lab closed last week from Globespan Partners, Jeff Bezos, Mitch Kapor and Pierre Omidyar, FM's first in-world deal is chump change. But it’s pretty darn exciting, to me anyway, to consummate my first-ever advertising deal in a virtual currency used by denizens of an online nation -- a currency that converts into US dollars in FM’s PayPal account. It brings me back to virtual gaming after a long hiatus, and helps me understand that concepts like Second Life aren't fun and games anymore, they're entertainment. And as we know from Hollywood, the NBA or the World Wrestling Federation, entertainment products that capture the undivided attention of large, upscale audiences are big business for advertisers and media companies -- even if they need to invent a new currency to cut their deals.

Meanwhile, John Battelle has yet to comment on virtual rooftop parties at our Second Life pad, but come by for a visit when you’re next in Shipley!

(Disclosure: Mitch Kapor and Pierre Omidyar are also investors in FM, and John Battelle is my boss.)


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