Marketing’s lesson from Second Life

There is an old cliché dating back to the heyday of Second Life that you can be whoever you want to be online. The old fixed identity characteristics of age, race and gender begin to blur once people are able to choose who they want to be. The lesson of second life is that not everyone will behave online exactly as you might expect.

The reason this matters is that for all the millions spent by marketing departments targeting particular products and services at specific demographics those demographics themselves are much less stable than anyone ever realised.

This is the lesson of second life. As soon as people are in an environment where they are not in full public view, they start to behave in ways that might not ordinarily have been predicted. Old men turn into young women, straight young women turn gay and grey…

This matters for online marketers because it means that the base categories they have always worked with are less robust than they might have imagined. Here is an example:

Bingo has traditionally been a game played by women more than men. Survey after survey shows that bingo is twice as likely to be played by women than men. Conversely, there is a weight of evidence that suggests that sports betting is an overwhelmingly male preserve.

Sites like Winner Bingo and Mirror Bingo are unmistakably softer and more stereotypically female in their presentation than the sharp edged, densely filled pages of online bookmakers. Where might be a delicate shade of lilac, a leading sports brand such as Bet365 is a stark juxtaposition of green, black and white and an almost obsessive concentration of information.

Marketing loves this sort of neat cleavage: they can sell handsome princes and fairy-tale dragons to the Bingo market and an 11/2 price to football fans and everyone will go home happy – that’s the rationale anyway. But it turns out the story is more complicated than that.

Close inspection of the Winner Bingo site shows that they are an official partner of West Ham United – one of the more macho football club brands. And prominent on their site is a link to the Blog Winner ( sports betting site. Likewise, if we take a peek at the Bet365 website we see that Bingo is presented as a headline offering on the site’s homepage.

What is going on here?

It seems that there has been an evolution in marketing that has moved from generic messages and products aimed at the mass market, to ones that are more niched, targeted and discrete. In the process it seems that those same targeted offerings – Winner Bingo to women, Bet365 to men – are feeling the need to open up a little bit, to widen the narrow, gendered focus of their branding and to recognise the blurred middle ground that lies between them.

This is not the same as simply trying to be all things to all comers. Under the umbrella of highly gendered branding there are sub-sets of clients that are being addressed. Whilst it might seem that this is simply a matter of Winner Bingo making an appeal to men and Bet365 offering something to women, the reality unlikely to be quite so clear cut.

No-one has – as yet – produced a magic formula to explain exactly what is going on, but it does look as though the example of Second Life is one that is worth holding on to: you can play exactly how you want to play online.