Where virtual-world residents can create their own wares and businesses, advertising is never far behind. Second Life
is no stranger to user-created advertising and the controversy that comes with commercializing a shared digital environment. Ad fads have come and gone, but a new system is on the horizon, promising a publishing and advertising network modeled after the online banner ad industry.
Second Life resident Rathe Underthorn created his first billboard network about a year and a half ago. It received mixed reviews. "There are many historical Second Life forum threads dedicated to the debate of billboards in Second Life," Underthorn says, adding that he was the butt of a number of personal attacks, including negative ratings. "The protesters of my billboard network were passionate and united," he explains. "In the end I eventually took the network down one billboard at a time over a period of several months." While Underthorn considers his first experiment a success, he concedes that many see it as a failure. "I immediately began rethinking my design," Underthorn recalls. "How could I make it better? How could I introduce a real advertising system into Second Life that made sense, one that benefited advertisers, publishers, and consumers?" Foremost in his planning, says Underthorn, was a non-intrusive billboard system. "It couldn't be forced upon the community against its will."
A MetaAdverse billboard in Fate Gardens
Underthorn opened the doors to his new venture, the "MetaAdverse," in January, 2005. Its title is a play on Stephenson's "Metaverse," a word which many, including Underthorn, have come to use to describe Second Life. "An important key factor in the growth of the Metaverse is its economy. As the economy grows, so will the Metaverse. With that growth comes larger scaled projects, better virtual goods, better services, and better quality of virtual living for everyone." Underthorn's new system intends to address key failings of the old, which was costly and challenging maintain, while failing to provide a service to the community. "My solution is an open market. An open market allows the network to grow and shrink as warranted. Advertisers would be able to reach their desired audience. Publishers would be able to earn money by bringing in the audience. Prices would be set by the market based on supply and demand. Consumers would see better quality goods and services."
The MetaAdverse follows a time-tested convention currently in use in web-based online advertising. Publishers offer up ad-space, which is valuated and offered for rent to advertisers at a cost-per "impression." The MetaAdverse defines an impression as a 15-second view of the ad by a unique Second Life resident. Unlike traditional web-based banner ad systems, the MetaAdverse is open only to advertisements for virtual products or services. Billboards must adhere to specific sizes, and be unobtrusive. Ad-campaigns are reviewed before activation for compliance with Second Life's Terms of Service and Community Standards. Additionally, advertisers are able to target specific resident-interests using a category system. While this sort of matching has been a long-standing option for web-based advertisements, Underthorn says it's a first for Second Life.
MetaAdverse has so far spread to 62 Second Life sims (zones), garnering over ten thousand unique impressions daily. Some advertisers have reported sales-growth of up to 160%, while some publishers have earned over L$32,000 (around $130USD). Current advertisers include PixelDolls fashions, Seburo Industries armaments, and the SecondServer.net marketplace.
Resident Khamon Fate publishes MetaAdverse ads in two locations. "This kind of attractive, focused advertising makes sense to me," says Fate, "It's a far cry from eighty-by-eighty meter...spinning boards flashing ads in my face everywhere I go." Fate has installed one billboard near a free-money tree which cycles through clothing ads of interest to new residents; another installment shows landscaping-related ads to people exploring his land. Fate hasn't yet launched his own ad-campaign, but might in the near future if he's "convinced that the project is going to be successful enough to justify the financial and social cost."
While MetaAdverse is still a very young program, it seems to have escaped substantial backlash from the Second Life community. As Khamon Fate points out, there is a social cost to advertising. Web surfers have long despised banner ads, and current web browsers feature ad-blocking tools. MetaAdverse's system employs methods currently in general use in the online advertising. Like web-based banner systems, Rathe Underthorne's system has the potential to be a victim of its own success. MetaAdverse and its clients have an opportunity to learn from past mistakes, both from the virtual world of Second Life and from the real-world online-advertising industry. Whether residents will embrace this new billboard system or reject it depends largely on the sensitivity of both advertisers and publishers towards the community and Second Life's wide assortment of subcultures.