Virtual Customers Behind Avatars: The Relationship between Virtual Identity and Virtual Consumption in Second Life

Article excerpt

Abstract

This paper examines the relationship between virtual identity and virtual consumption in Second Life. More specifically, we investigate the tendency to link the virtual world to reality through the concept of identity, and explore the role consumption and business endeavors play in this process. Information was obtained from comments posted on four Second Life forums, focusing on the general themes of virtual avatars, aspects of business activities, and their mutual impact on each other. Qualitative narrative research analysis was employed. From our results, three distinct categories emerged on the basis of residents' immersion to Second Life; 1) purely virtual, 2) mixed, and 3) realist. We highlight particular characteristics associated with each of these clusters, with suggestions aiming to capture the various demands and preferences of each corresponding group. In terms of business activities, residents appeared quite demanding, identifying high quality products and professional services as the basis for business success in virtual settings. The business approaches most likely identified to lead to success or failure associated with certain businesses confirm that online environments differ substantially from physical and real world markets, with trust being a particularly sensitive issue in these anonym and fully disembodied contexts. Further implications for organizations and scholars are discussed.

Keywords: Second life, Virtual identity, Virtual worlds, Virtual consumption, Online consumer behavior

1 Introduction

Recent Web-based innovations and technological applications provide consumers with a variety of novel ways to express their preferences, continuously challenging marketers to re-think and adapt their approach [12], [85]. On the one hand, Internet-based innovative technologies, such as Facebook, YouTube or Twitter, changed the traditional relationship between individual users and computer mediated contents [13], with mass customization and one-to-one marketing opening new doors for self-expression [10]. On the other hand, the continuous increase in Internet penetration trends around the Globe makes the already critical influence inherent in these applications even more prevalent. According to a recent report, the number of Worldwide Internet users reached nearly 2.3 billion by the end of 2011 [28]. Should individuals' reasons for their Internet presence be associated with entertainment, research, and / or social encounters, online environments offer organizations with new opportunities to understand their consumers [63], reaching beyond the more traditional theories based on marketing and economics, which alone may no longer be sufficient to predict consumer behavior in online environments [39], [81].

Among the numerous Internet applications, online virtual worlds, such as Second Life or World of Warcraft, have managed to build up a substantial client base over recent years, with current estimates placing the total number of registered virtual world accounts at 1.4 billion as of 2011 [36]. By the same time, the virtual goods market was anticipated to reach 2.1 billion USD [62]. These relatively novel environments with such robust economic potential are particularly interesting for marketers, given their massive user pool, and their associated ability to offer new insights into consumer identities and characteristics [30]. Furthermore, they present organizations with fertile grounds to experiment with and evaluate innovative tools aimed to enhance their marketing and sales efforts [31], [60], in turn shedding light on online consumption. Various businesses have already established their presence in existing virtual worlds [47]; yet to date, not many studies address the intriguing particularities of these virtual realities, and their implications for organizations. The purpose of the current paper is to examine aspects of virtual consumer identity - the tendency to link the virtual world to reality through the concept of self -, and explore potential connections to business endeavors in Second Life. …