Wednesday, September 6, 2006

Alternate identities and the web

This article was first published in Marketing magazine on 6 September 2006.  It was the first column I wrote for the magazine, and looking back at it I think it's as true today as it was then.  With reputedly on in six Americans marrying last year having met online, developing the skills to understand online identity is becoming more than just crucial learning for media planners...

In 1993, Peter Steiner’s now-famous New Yorker cartoon show showed two dogs, with one at the computer, saying “On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog”. If consumers had found the internet a rich source of anonymity back then, 13 years on there are more ways than ever to conceal your true identity.

From the assumed privacy of an internet search, to actively assuming a different persona, pretty much everybody who uses the internet is interested in the obscurity it brings. And for marketers in this space this brings new and interesting challenges, because as the digital environment grows, people are more and more not who they say they are.

So who is the real you?

The survey questionnaire you fill in? Your ACORN classification? The person your partner knows? Or is it better defined by your online behaviour?

User 98523 (not her real number) is pregnant. She’s currently shopping for living room furniture, shoes and a new mobile phone. Her partner has bipolar disorder, uses cocaine and abuses her. She’s thinking about emigrating to Australia (who can blame her?). She’s one of the thousands of AOL users whose search data was released on the internet last month, and it’s a fascinating insight into the private life of the consumer.

It’s unlikely she declares much of this publicly. But online, her behaviour reflects the underlying issues in her life – and this is more likely to reflect her real personality than anything she’ll tell a focus group.

But online behaviour goes much further than this in concealing the true identity of the user. Multiplayer online games like Second Life and World of Warcraft attract millions of users across the world, each adopting an onscreen persona and living out a second existence in cyberspace.

As developing technology enables more immersive environments, these are becoming a growing area of internet use. Second Life ( is a trading economy – you can earn and spend money in the game, and convert your earnings into US Dollars – even using a real-world cash machine to withdraw it. And as this economy has grown, real-world businesses have started to take an interest.

American Apparel, the US clothing line have opened a store in Second Life selling virtual clothes. Starwood Hotels are opening a hotel, and Suzanne Vega recently held a concert there.

This might seem the stuff of nerds, and the sort of thing that should be dismissed by serious-minded marketing folk. But at the time of writing, $360,000 had been spent the previous day on Second Life.

Increasingly then, there are people on the internet who act differently online to how they say they do. Moreover there are people who have completely different lives online to their ‘real’ world lives. This is an increasingly pervasive trend – in one influential survey in 2001, 24% of teenagers in chat rooms said they’d pretended to be someone else. A 2005 survey in Canada claimed 60% of students pretended to be someone else online.

So there’s a big chunk of your audience out there who are spending time being something else. If you’re in the business of communicating to people, this is quite disconcerting. We’re used to putting people in boxes. They’re 16-24, they’re male, they’re AB. And here’s a bunch of people resolutely not just climbing out of the boxes, but pretending they’re in completely different ones.

It’s always been the job of the planner to have insight into the consumer, and to form that into strategy. So if the consumer’s off being someone else, or if they really behave in totally different ways to those that they declare, then it’s going to be much harder in the future to tell what they really want.

If you were ever in any doubt as to why media and account planning were worthwhile pursuits, now’s the time to take interest. As choice and diversity have flooded the consumer’s world, both in products and media, understanding what drives people to navigate certain paths is becoming an increasingly crucial skill. And if this trend continues to spread, this understanding is going to be harder to get, and more valuable by the day.

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