Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told

Virtual goods make money

In a recent post about the profitability of online social networks in the US, China and Japan, venture capitalist Bill Gurley presents evidence that the more financially successful social network sites are those that downplay advertising revenue and focus on revenue from virtual goods. He points out that Users in Second Life are doing $450m annually in this business and taking out of Second Life $100m a year.

But why would anyone buy them?

For those who can’t understand why anyone would actually pay for virtual or digital goods, the author points out that product branding has been doing this for many decades. He gives as an example a pair of Chanel sunglasses, sellling for $329. The point is that without the prominantly displayed Chanel logo, consumers would be unlikely to pay more than $50 for them. They are buying an image, a dream, a virtual product.

Jeremy Liew gives some more great examples in his WSJ article, Why do people buy virtual goods?

Every product has several components of value

Eric Ries of social network IMVU suggests any product has a virtual component as part of what it offers and he lists the main components in rough order of significance:

  • Practical utility
  • Perceived value
  • Social value
  • Identity value

The key points are first, that the significance grows as you move down the list; and second that a product that has only one of these values will fare relatively poorly (For example what Facebook failed to learn about social objects is that almost nothing is a pure social object. Purity makes social objects less valuable, hence virtual gifts on Facebook seem like spam – though they’re still selling, proving that even social value alone has a dollar sign –  whereas in Second Life they seem more genuine – read: have more types of value – and so Second Life sells more).

“when given the choice, try and move up the hierarchy of value. If given the opportunity to work with two customer segments, one of which sees your product as a basic utility and another of which sees it as a lifestyle statement, choose the latter. IMVU made that choice early on, when we abandoned some profitable customers who wanted to use our product as a regular-IM substitute. There was no way to service them while still engaging with the goths, emos and anime fans who were rapidly becoming IMVU’s top evangelists. We doubled-down on identity value, and it worked out well.”

The Greatest Story Virtual Product Ever Told Sold

What this is leading to is that the Church is a really great purveyor of virtual goods, starting with God. But because it doesn’t quite think of it in this way it may be missing a lot of opportunities.

At the start of Lent the Italian Catholic Church has been in the news for suggesting Catholics should give up texting and online activities for Lent. However, some Catholic commentators have questioned this or even ridiculed it. The UK charity Christian Aid has done the opposite and set up a ‘virtual pilgrimage‘ online, allowing users to ‘travel to’ and reflect on locations in the Holy Land.

By reflecting a bit more on the fit between virtual goods and the virtuality of the deity, Churches might do better at what they do. On the other hand, these virtual goods analysers might equally do well to watch what the church does – it’s the original and still the best…

[Danah Boyd of Microsoft Research has more about social media.]

2 thoughts on “Virtual Goods and the Greatest Story ever Told

  1. do you think group-grid exists in 2nd Life? Or do people select into 2nd Life based on their location on group-grid? If latter, who is more likely to be selecting in? Individualist, who doesn’t much value the encumbered and freighted relations one has to maintain w/ others in real space? Or Egalitarian, who is drawn moth-to-a-flame to every flicker of solidarity in their environment? Even if selection effect exists, might some sort of fractalization take place such that those who take up residence in 2nd Life start to stratify into group grid relative to each other even if they are predominantly of one way of life in real space?

  2. Well, it’s certainly worth thinking about. These virtual worlds are certainly not ‘neutral spaces’ where anything goes. Their users have to accept certain conventions in order to operate effectively. I see Second Life as requiring a sort of neo-shamanism which is predominantly low-grid, low group. But as you suggest, users go along with this to varying degrees. They can ignore this expectation or else subvert it, but only within the limits of the medium itself (are ‘griefers’ an exception to this limit or just a demonstration that there indeed is a limit?).
    How people use virtual worlds is a result of the encounter between their pre-existing social expectations and the expectations imposed on them by the virtual world’s conventions. This is of course recursive. For instance, Second Life teaches new forms of commodification, and users bring this learning back with them into the ‘real’ offline world.
    The dream of interoperability between different virtual worlds is interesting because of the way expectations of behaviour differ between virtual worlds. So the structure of the virtual environment is as important, if not more so, as the agency of the avatar.
    In a sense, the entry of a user into a particular virtual world is no different from entry into any social setting. Each social setting, on and off line, tends to have a dominant grid-group bias which participants both negotiate and mediate. For instance, participation in hierarchical religious activities does not necessarily make participants ‘hierarchists’. They might be able to move effortlessly from one social setting to a different one – say in going from church (hierarchical) to work (individualist) or family (egalitarian) with only a short temporal gap between each setting. In the same way, a single avatar might move from World of Warcraft to Grand Theft Auto to Gaia, without missing a beat. But in each context the avatar would be inclined to behave quite differently.
    Behind all this, of course, is the ever present reality that these virtual worlds are private enterprises designed to turn a financial profit. Just as there is a difference between a person walking down the high street (public space) and walking down the shopping mall (quasi-public space), so there is a difference between a person sitting at home (private space) and a person sitting at home online (quasi-public quasi-space). The impression I get is that virtual worlds may miss out on money-making opportunities when they fail to identify possible revenue streams coming from the grid-group quadrants they neglect. But maybe it’s easier to identify the cultural biases than it is to infiltrate them with financial transactions.

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