Avatars in Business, Marketing, Workplace, Learning … Enablers for Virtual-Worlds of Markets & Economies: New Reality or Creepy?

As crazy as it might sound avatars are becoming big business. The corporate avatar trend went public when IBM established guidelines for how its employees would use avatars and participate in business situations in virtual worlds. You might not have realized that the use of avatars in business settings is growing. With the rise in online virtual meetings, virtual training & learning simulations, and virtual businesses, not to mention social media within and across organizational boundaries, business avatars are becoming more common.

Simultaneously, the processes for adapting and crafting an avatar’s appearance and movement are becoming both more sophisticated and easier to use. Since avatars are becoming more common and easier to individualize, there will be more variation across avatars representing any one company.

According to a report from ‘Gartner Research’, it predicts that by year-end 2013, 70 percent of enterprises will have behavior guidelines and dress codes established for all employees who have avatars associated with their organization when they’re online. Gartner suggests six tactical guidelines that organizations can follow to make the best use of avatars in the business environment:

  • Help users learn to control their avatars.
  • Recognize that users will have a personal affinity with their avatar.
  • Educate users on the risks and responsibilities of reputation management.
  • Extend the code of conduct to include avatars in 3D virtual environments.
  • Explore the business case for avatars.
  • Encourage usage and enterprise pilots.

Others have added four more:

  • Encourage employees to consider how their avatars will appear to others in different cultural environments: what’s amusing or looks cool in the UK, for instance, may have very different reactions from people in, say, India or Brazil.
  • Help everyone understand and respect the intellectual property rights of others: if someone wants to use an image or artwork created by someone else, they must ensure that the creator has given permission or that it’s clear what type of usage by others is allowed.
  • Produce some simple how-to tutorials that help employees with the practicalities of avatar creation: the objective here is to help ensure that everyone is able to create their avatars to a high quality and that images look good however they’re sized.
  • Involve employees in different areas of your business in defining avatar usage best practice: don’t just create a policy and simply cascade it out in the traditional way.

In the article “Crafting Business Avatars: An Authenticity Exercise” by cv harquail writes: The use of avatars for business has gotten ahead of our understanding of how to use avatars well. Business avatars are not “normal” avatars. If you say “avatar” to your average business person, they’re thinking the movie, not the 3-D animated visual representation of themselves somewhere virtual working away. If they know about avatars online, then these employees are probably thinking about the kinds of avatars are common in online games.

Although it was predicted that businesses and employees would adopt avatars as professional tools, this growing use of avatars actually goes against the grain of the norms of conventional avatar use. Researchers who compare and contrast the ‘real person’ with the ‘virtual avatar’ note how, on several dimensions, the real person and the avatar are on opposite ends of a spectrum.

These contrasts between ‘entertainment avatars’ and the ‘real people’ behind them are similar to the incipient contrasts between play avatars and business avatars. Business avatars need to reflect the organization’s identity, and employees need to learn how to craft avatars that express the organization’s identity…

In the article “Avatars in the Workplace” by Byron Reeves and Leighton Read write: The movie “Avatar” is a stunning and vivid depiction of a fantasy world unimaginable without serious help from a visionary director. And as strange as it may sound, thousands of real-world employees are beginning to use avatars as part of their regular jobs.

Our research has shown how employees at American companies like IBM, Accenture, Cisco, State Farm, Intel, BP and Wells Fargo log into virtual worlds and use avatars to brainstorm with colleagues, recruit employees, sell to customers, attend leadership training, manage programs, direct operation centers, and collaborate with company groups around the world. Why would a company want its employees to go to work as avatars?  

First, they’re practical — it’s easier, cheaper, greener, and healthier to meet people in a virtual world. Second, you can do things with avatars that you can’t do in the real world at all. Research at Stanford University shows that people enthusiastically occupy avatar bodies to collaborate, compete, diagnose, search, inspect, calculate, audit, analyze, schedule, organize and communicate in ways quite similar to real life.

We have found that the ability to represent oneself within media fundamentally changes the psychology of interactive technology: hearts of the people that control avatars beat faster, the areas of people’s brains that regulate social interactions are more engaged, and people care substantially about how their avatars are treated…”

As a result of this intensity, avatars create the emotional and social connections necessary for the most valuable business conversations;  those where innovations are first cooked up and debated, passions are exposed, and people win, lose, or accommodate via personal connections.

In the article “4 Ways Avatars Can Help Business” by AllBusiness.com writes: “Does my business site need an avatar?” If your web-site handles a lot of customer questions that are unique to the user and can’t be answered through an FAQ or a general search, then avatar virtual agents can make a real difference in your web-site’s function.

“Companies implement avatars when they really want to take charge and assist customers in resolving their issues,” says Mark Gaydos, VirtuOz, a company that creates avatars for major companies such as eBay, Michelin, PayPal, and H&R Block. According to Gaydos, avatar virtual agents can help companies in four major ways:

  • Avatars are quicker than a live chat agent, search for answers much faster than a live person, and address an infinite number of customer queries. Avatars are fast, accurate and can respond to 80 percent of customer requests.
  • Avatars are more cost-effective. It costs money to employ customer service reps to operate live chats and call centers.
  • Avatars are more engaging. Reading an FAQ section or using a web-site search tool leaves a huge gap in the customer experience that creates loyal shoppers.
  • Avatars provide customer insight. Some avatars are able to capture conversations and auto-categorize them into customer trends.

According to a study from Microsoft and the Universityof Washington, employees are generally open to using avatars for email and instant messaging, with co-workers, and for training — but prefer that these avatars not be too “creepy”. Study authors, Kori Inkpen of and Mara Sedlins, surveyed more than 1,000 employees of an unnamed “large company.” Respondents were very comfortable with using avatars or interacting with avatars for instant messages, email, with co-workers, and in development training and forums, the paper said.

They were slightly less comfortable using avatars when working internationally or with customers, and least comfortable during a job interview. “Realism in avatars is a delicate issue,” the study authors said. Some realistic avatars were rated positively, but other realistic avatars “were felt to be eerie or creepy,” they wrote. “The results from this survey demonstrate that people are open to the idea of using avatars for workplace communication,” the authors said. “However, the choice of avatar can significantly impact people’s comfort.”

In the article “How Businesses Are Adapting to the Virtual World” by G. Anthony Gorry writes:  The idea of the ’avatar’ (a Sanskrit word for the incarnation of a god) was until recently best known for its appearances in science fiction. Eventually avatars made their way into the real world (so to speak) in the form of characters in primitive computer games. For example, Linden Labs, the developer of the popular game ‘Second Life’, reports over a billion user-hours spent so far in its system. Businesses –especially high-tech companies– have been exploring ways to put these virtual spaces to use.

Cisco, for example, has employees who use ‘Second Life’ both for internal communication and for customer education and training. Similarly, IBM recently assembled 150,000 employees and stakeholders in an electronic “town hall” meeting that included an island in ‘Second Life’.

These early corporate explorations of virtuality continue the abstraction of work that has already put so many of us at the verge between two worlds: the solid and substantial realms of products and offline services, and the digital workspace, which places its own demands on workers and imparts its own discipline on work…

In the article The Demise of Second Life?” by Paul Hemp  writes: The tide of journalistic hype about real-world business opportunities in the virtual world ‘Second Life’ is turning. ‘Wired’ had an article that argues Madison Avenue is wasting millions of dollars getting clients to create virtual stores that rarely get a visitor. ‘Time’ labeled Second Life one of the “5 Worst Websites” because of its user-unfriendliness and called Fortune 500 forays into the virtual-world “a case of some CEOs trying too hard to be hip.” ‘Forbes’ catalogued examples of the vandalism and pranks that have beset real-world brands in ‘Second Life’.

Are these naysayers onto something? But this wave of skepticism misses some key points about the potential for marketing in online virtual worlds. In my article ‘Avatar-Based Marketing’, I noted that brand-building initiatives by real-world companies in virtual worlds must engage users, and that a mere presence in this world isn’t enough. Granted, ‘Second Life’, with its occasional lawlessness and somewhat clunky technology, may not survive as a mainstream marketing venue.

But other virtual worlds will emerge. More importantly, companies will end up creating (and governing) their own online 3D environments; for example, standalone virtual shopping malls where users can meet with the avatars of real-world friends, try on virtual clothing, and make purchases of the real-world equivalent. It would be a grave mistake to dismiss the notion of marketing and selling in virtual worlds simply because of the shortcomings of ‘Second Life’

Avatars seem to be a logical next step, taking the narrative imagination of fiction, the aesthetic imagination of cinema, and the self-styling power of social networks, and combining them into virtual worlds that seek to mimic real-world interaction. Companies might then create virtual environments that encompass not only analogues to conventional office settings, but a host of diversions as well.

Avatars may well enrich our opportunities for play, escape, and fantasy. And as they will inevitably appear in the business world and alter the nature of work itself, moving it further into the realm of image and abstraction.

However, among the many important challenges confronting businesses and workers, as they adapt to the virtual workplace, is fostering full & real-human relationships in a world increasingly dependent upon artifice and illusion.