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Creating and Engaging Virtual World Communities

Geoff Yang (Redpoint Ventures), Craig Sherman (Gaia Online), Reuben Steiger (Millions of Us), Daniel James (Three Rings)
Marketing and Community
Location: 2009

As virtual worlds increase in popularity, marketers are reaching out and courting the attention of a rapidly growing audience. With more people than ever before donning avatars, the global community of virtual world users continues to grow not only larger, but also more disparate, more inclusive, and more difficult to define or categorize.

Creating and engaging these disparate audiences is a key challenge for virtual world designers and marketers, and a crucial success factor is the ability to listen to their large and diverse audience and understand exactly what users want from their chosen virtual world.

At any given moment in Gaia Online, 100,000+ users may be online simultaneously. Some are there to play online games, others watch movies in a communal virtual cinema setting, chat in forums, personalize their avatars, or share their real-world art with virtual world admirers.

In order to understand these users, ongoing dialogue is essential. A simple user poll about the most popular celebrity in a particular virtual world might seem like just a bit of fun, but when the chosen celebrity makes a virtual appearance in the world at a later stage, marketers can be confident that their guest isn’t going to drive users away.

Similarly, while a virtual world’s forums and bulletin boards may seem an appropriately unruly and diverse sounding board for user opinion, they provide some of the best available insights into exactly what makes users tick, what unifies them, and what divides them. Indeed, marketers and developers who ignore the writing on the forum wall, do so at their own risk.

But as if defining a virtual world audience wasn’t hard enough, things become even more challenging when designers try to influence or shape the future direction of that audience or reach out to new audiences altogether.

With new users more curious than ever about virtual worlds, it makes sense for marketers to cozy up to these new audiences where they can. But existing users were attracted to their chosen virtual world for a reason, and marketers must be careful not to alienate their devoted users.

In these individualistic, user-driven environments, reaching out to new audiences, perhaps by introducing targeted narrative, episodic elements, and designer-generated content, must be done carefully. For the marketer, it is a balancing act: introduce too much structure and users might start to lose their sense of freedom in the virtual world. Introduce too little, and you are missing out on the opportunity to strategically reach out to new audiences and shape the virtual world’s future direction.

In this panel, leaders in the virtual world industry will discuss how they define, understand, and engage their audiences, what strategies they take in reaching out to new users, and how they maintain the delicate balance of capitalizing on market opportunities without losing touch with the anarchic, freeform focus that attracted their users in the first place.

Photo of Geoff Yang

Geoff Yang

Redpoint Ventures

Geoffrey Y. Yang is a founding partner of Redpoint Ventures, a $2 billion family of early-stage venture capital funds. In addition to Redpoint, Geoff is a general partner with Institutional Venture Partners (also a $2 billion family of early-stage venture capital funds), a firm he joined in 1987.

Geoff emphasizes investments in consumer media and infrastructure. His media and advertising investments include Ask Jeeves, Efficient Frontier, Excite, Gaia Online, MySpace, Oodle and TiVo. His networking investments include BigBand, Calix, Foundry Networks, Juniper Networks, MMC Networks and Wellfleet.

Geoff was formerly Director of the National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) and Director and President of the Western Association of Venture Capitalists (WAVC). In addition, Geoff has served on the President’s Information Technology Advisory Committee (PITAC). Geoff was also an Associate with First Century Partners, an affiliate of Smith Barney. Earlier, Geoff had been in technical support and marketing at IBM Corp.

Geoff holds a BSE in Engineering and a BA from Princeton, and an MBA from Stanford Graduate School of Business.

Photo of Craig Sherman

Craig Sherman

Gaia Online

During business hours, Craig Sherman lives in gaiaonline.com, the leading teen hangout on the web. Craig leads the company’s strategic planning, management, and technology development. Prior to joining Gaia Online, Craig served as Entrepreneur in Residence at Benchmark Capital. Craig was also COO of MyFamily.com (ancestry.com), where he helped grow the company from $23 million to $150 million in sales and transform it from an advertising-based site to a highly profitable consumer subscription business. Before this, Craig held senior positions at American International Group, where he ran all marketing and internet sites for AIG in Japan and Korea. Previous to AIG, Craig was CEO of Cendant Japan, a joint venture founded by Cendant and Mitsubishi Corporation. Craig currently holds director or advisor positions on the boards of Homestead, Myheritage, Netquote and Singlefeed. Previously, Craig also held board positions with Photobucket, prior to its sale to the Fox network, and Logoworks, prior to its sale to Hewlett Packard. Craig has a BA from Princeton University.

Photo of Reuben Steiger

Reuben Steiger

Millions of Us

Reuben Steiger is the CEO of Millions of Us, a company dedicated to helping businesses understand and harness the power of virtual worlds and online communities.

Prior to founding Millions of Us, Steiger was the Evangelist for Linden Lab, creators of the 3-D virtual world Second Life. In that role he was responsible for business development efforts and bringing the first wave of corporations and commercial developers into Second Life.

Until 2002, he was Chief Development Officer at OVEN Digital, where he helped build that company into the world’s largest privately-owned Internet consultancy with 11 offices and 350 employees worldwide.

Steiger holds a BA in English Literature from Brown University and lives in Marin County with his wife and two young children.

Daniel James

Three Rings

Daniel James is co-founder and CEO of Three Rings, pioneer of casual MMOs and the virtual goods and currency model in the US with Puzzle Pirates.
Three Rings is presently launching Whirled, a flash-based social virtual world for player created content and multi-player games. Daniel has a long history of innovation in online games dating back to his first encounter with Essex MUD in 1982 and the commercial text MUD Avalon, one of the first content services to charge money on the internet circa 1994.