These days, people are spending a lot of time online, much of it in Web communities and social networks. Second Life is a virtual world in which users create avatars to represent themselves and interact with others. Entrepreneurs have started businesses there, ranging from stores and clubs to clothing design studios; real-world businesses have established showrooms or other ventures there, primarily to increase brand visibility and to reach consumers in a place where they are spending time. Other online communities, multiplayer games, and social networks, ranging from MySpace and Facebook to World of Warcraft and specialized discussion forums, may be less immersive than Second Life but still account for a huge amount of both online time and person-to-person interaction.
The Wall Street Journal has an interesting article, Is This Man Cheating on His Wife? that illustrates the seductive and addictive nature of online communities, and the real-world issues that can result when these different realities collide. What we found interesting from a neuromarketing view was research cited in the article:
Nearly 40% of men and 53% of women who play online games said their virtual friends were equal to or better than their real-life friends, according to a survey of 30,000 gamers conducted by Nick Yee, a recent Ph.D. graduate from Stanford University. More than a quarter of gamers said the emotional highlight of the past week occurred in a computer world, according to the survey, which was published in 2006 by Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press’s journal Presence…
On a neurological level, players may not distinguish between virtual and real-life relationships, recent studies suggest. In an experiment conducted at the University of Washington’s Institute for Learning and Brain Sciences, test subjects were hooked up to neuroimaging machines while they played a simple computer game in which they moved colored discs to form a pattern. When told that they were playing with a person rather than a computer, participants showed increased activity in areas of the brain that govern social interaction.
Other experiments show that people socializing in virtual worlds remain sensitive to subtle cues like eye contact. In one study, participants moved their avatars back if another character stood too close, even though the space violation was merely virtual, says Jeremy Bailenson, director of Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab, which was created five years ago to study social behavior in virtual worlds. “Our brains are not specialized for 21st-century media,” says Prof. Reeves. “There’s no switch that says, ‘Process this differently because it’s on a screen.’ “
In essence, from a neurological standpoint, virtual reality IS reality. Presumably, some virtual reality environments are better than others, and some online social interactions are more potent than others. Still, marketers looking to develop relationships with their customers have to realize that the online interaction can be as real as, well, reality. Looking specifically at social interactions with customers, a marketer might want to focus on specific ways to build that human-to-human contact:
Online Communities. Building a community around a product, brand, or company, and having plenty of participation from company representatives, can have multiple benefits. Beyond providing a distortion-free and rapid communication channel, it allows customers to interact with each other and with the company on a personal, social basis. Participation in other, non-company, online communities can also humanize the company’s interface. The company people that customers interact with online are just as real, if not moreso, than an in-store clerk or a call center operator.
Live Assistance. More companies are providing real human interaction on their websites by offering a live assistance link or even popping open a window that allows the visitor to chat with a human representative.
Enhanced Imaging. For a variety of reasons, including technology limitations and privacy concerns, most company personnel aren’t represented graphically when they are online. Live assistance dialogs are text only, and message board posts are usually equally bare. This is probably a mistake – looking at the behavior of Second Life users and the extent to which they accept each other as real people, I think company personnel online should be represented by pictures. If not an actual photo, then an avatar should be used. Indeed, an attractive and unique avatar might in many cases be more effective than a lifelike photo. If you doubt this, compare the photo of the real-life husband in the WSJ article – coincidentally, he works in a call center – with the avatar of his identity in Second Life, where he is a successful entrepreneur employing dozens of other Second Life users. Giving each company rep a visible identity, whether photographic or designed, will increase social acceptance by customers.
I think that one key aspect of maximizing the social impact of web conversation with customers is to avoid heavily script-based interaction. We’ve all had conversations with call center reps who seemed unable to deviate from their script and decision tree; one might as well have an automated attendant to talk to. To achieve social interaction on the Web equivalent to in-person contact, the conversation has to be real and the company rep needs to be responsive to what the customer is saying – even if it means operating unscripted.