Imagine someone wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with your company name--all day, every day--then sharing the shirt with thousands of friends. It might sound like a marketer's pipe dream, but with avatars--the little talking, animated characters representing users that are popping up all over the web--such dreams can come true.
Sean Ryan, founder of San Francisco based Meez.com, is witnessing the trend firsthand with his online avatar service. "We're seeing interest from companies looking for cost-effective ways to reach out to consumers online," says Ryan, 38, who launched Meez in March 2006 and has raised more than $5.3 million in venture funding. "It's harder and harder to reach people under 30," he says, and avatars are one way to do just that.
Scott Flora, owner of Venice, California-based Blik, found a friend in Ryan when they partnered up to create virtual wallpaper that mimics Blik's line of adhesive wall decals. Meez users can choose Blik wallpaper for their free avatars' virtual environments, then share the avatar--and the Blik name--in blogs, on social networking sites, as IM icons and anywhere they want to give themselves a little personality in an otherwise impersonal web world. "People see the design is branded by our company," explains Flora, 39, who says Blik has doubled in size every year since starting in 2002. "We have gotten a number of responses from people who have seen us on the Meez site."
While avatars are just beginning to catch on in the U.S.--compared to, say, Korea, where avatars are a billion-dollar market--Ryan says they'll become much more mainstream in 2007 and beyond.
It's a trend you can't ignore, especially from a viral marketing standpoint. "Entrepreneurs are always looking for cost-effective ways to fit marketing into a new context," says Robb Hecht, marketing consultant and adjunct marketing professor at Baruch College in New York City. "Avatars are the next big thing. They put a humanizing touch [on] the whole web-based experience."
Karen E. Spaeder is a freelance business writer in Southern California.