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July 17, 2008

Francesco D'Orazio:Heading towards a virtual events future

I think virtual events will become more and more important as a driver for growth and engagement both for the virtual worlds providers and for the marketing and events industry. They are a cost-effective tool and are, of course, clean and carbon neutral.

They can easily reach international audiences and are a powerful tool to engage the audience in rich and interactive ways that build up emotional and experiential ties between the user and the brand, which is quite hard to achieve using the traditional tools of marketing and communication.

Also, virtual meetings provide not only rich ways of interaction through voice, chat and video, but they also provide tools to share any media content, from webpages to audio and video, offering at the same time the ‘physical’ interactivity of presence in a shared environment.

Rules of engagement
Events and virtual worlds have a lot in common. They are both based on the same form of engagement: presence-based interaction and synchronous communication. Users must be online at the same time and in the same place in order to interact. And this is why the engagement in virtual worlds is radically different from the engagement on social networking platforms, the latter being based on asynchronous communication: I log in into Facebook once a day, for 20 minutes, and that's enough for me to do all the things that I need to do there and to keep my social network alive.

The way we use virtual worlds is different. We must log in when our friends are online and meet them somewhere, but we need to have a good reason to do this. Events are the perfect answer to this problem, as they are brilliant for fostering and supporting presence-based interaction. In other words, they provide the essential call-to-action.

This is why they have been an essential part of the user experience in virtual worlds since the very beginning. Today, we can see such a pattern applying not only to Second Life, but across most of the social virtual worlds (There, VSide, Kaneva and so on).

Life changing: D'Orazio's virtual avatar… and friend

Join the virtual party

As an example, when I started logging in constantly to Second Life, my main activity was going to parties. No one out of virtual worlds would have understood at the time why a virtual music event makes sense, and in fact, it was always the case of people staring at you like you were completely nuts.

A virtual party basically consists of one or more guys DJ-ing/playing live and streaming from their home, while the attendees share the music, the experience and comment about the music itself and the situation, the outfits and every other possible connected topic. The point being that the music was the strong underlying structure and narrative for our participation and engagement, and helped to keep the experience consistent, enjoyable and always different over the hours and the days.

Additionally, the music event structure, having a specific/compelling timeframe and a specific content proposition, was a very powerful call-to-action, which was able to bring everyone together in-world at the same time.

Opportunities and challenges

It is not by chance that worlds like Virtual MTV and VSide, which mostly rely on live music events and meet-and-greets with artists, are always well populated and have a bigger active user base. And again, it's not by chance that EMI recently hired Cory Ondrejka, the architect behind Second Life, as vice president of digital strategy.

But music is only one of the many articulations of the virtual event concept. So far, virtual events have been organised to host conferences, business meetings and generally social gatherings. So, there is certainly a huge opportunity to explore here and many companies are starting to focus exclusively on virtual events production and management.

But there are challenges as well. To start with, the number of users who can attend a virtual event varies from platform to platform, but it is sometimes too small to make the virtual event relevant in terms of attendance. Also the reach of virtual events is still mostly limited to the actual timeframe of the event in-world and to the people who attend the event, because of a lack of integration between virtual worlds and the web, which could easily extend the reach of the events before and after the actual gatherings. Finally, the interfaces that we use to control the avatar and to 'feel' the virtual space will need to become more immersive in order to make the experience and the interaction really compelling.

So, these are important issues that will need to be resolved in order to make virtual events the future of events, but that's where we're heading towards.

Francesco D'Orazio is founder and chief executive of Myrl, a social gateway to virtual worlds. He also has a PhD in virtual worlds and regularly lectures on the subject at Milan University.

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