Wednesday, August 22, 2007

Marketing Research in Habbo Hotel

This story is from a couple of weeks ago, about a "new" (is it new? The Sulake website seems to imply otherwise, as in that the study is more than a year old) market research study conducted in Habbo Hotel. Business Week's Reena Jana has written a good overview of the study, linking it to larger trends within in-game market research and providing a run-down of the study's major findings and demographic data. From Jana's article:
Sulake, the Helsinki (Finland) company that created Habbo, a popular eight-year-old virtual world aimed at teens, found a way to survey more than 42,000 such consumers in 22 countries, by soliciting responses to questions about real-world global shopping preferences from Habbo avatars. Its first Global Habbo Youth Survey, conducted in association with Finnish market researcher 15/30, was published in the form of a 200-plus page report earlier this year, and it's now available to curious corporations for $5,000.

In September, Sulake will conduct a second survey, this time without an outside partner. The process of surveying teens on this massive, global scale via their avatars was so efficient, Habbo decided that there is no need for external help. "We found we could gather this data in about a week," says Emmi Kuusikko, director of user and market insight at Sulake. "It is extremely rewarding to carry out this quantitative research. The [teens] were so eager to participate. They were in their own environment, an environment they can trust."

The site solicited respondents from all across Europe, North America, and Asia by sending a message to Habbo avatars which linked to an external online questionnaire. According to the article, respondents spent an average of 33 minutes answering a variety of questions about their "backgrounds, tastes, and their shopping and media consumption habits." In exchange for their participation, respondents were "given a reward" in Habbo credits (which usually cost real money). Overall, respondents were predominantly based in the UK, but the survey managed to draw participants from around the world:
Most (8,852) came from Britain, followed by the U.S. (3,747), and Norway (3,244). The fewest responses were from Venezuela (197), Portugal (175), and Austria (90). And responses was split pretty equally between genders: 51% of survey takers were female, 49% male. Most respondents were in the 13- to 15-year-old age group (60%), followed by 16- to 18-year-olds (19%). Only 12% were 12 and under [which is odd since players are supposed to be at least 13 to play], and 10% were 19 and older.

Although these practices appear to have been going on in other environments for some time now, the article seems to treat the phenomenon as a new development in online market research:
Some trend watchers think mining virtual worlds for teen-trend data is a logical and timely market-research strategy. "The membrane between our real and our virtual worlds has become very thin, especially for teens today. Most of their social interaction takes place with a screen, whether it's on social-networking sites, instant messaging, using a cell phone to take photos or watch TV, or even just plain e-mailing," observes Robyn Waters, former vice-president of trend, design, and product development at Target and now the head of an eponymous trend-watching firm. "For this generation, interacting in the virtual world isn't just a trend. It's their life," Waters continues. "Trend watching in virtual worlds makes sense for any business in today's environment that wants to be around for the next generation."

Weird - is it just me or does this article seem preposterously out of date? Anyway, of course, there are also marketers and critics who question the validity of the data. AdAge claims that the industry is currently experiencing an "Online Market Research Crisis," and the issues around online surveys will be the focus of an upcoming conference of the Advertising Research Foundation (ARF). For example, check out this video on AdAge to hear editor-at-large Jack Neff discussing the controversy around "scientific flaws" in online survey research. Others, such as myself, have deep and ongoing concerns about the ethical standards applied in these types of studies. Is consent "informed consent"? Is the site exploiting teens' "trust" by approaching them in their "own environments"? Is parental consent addressed? What about the implications of renumeration?

You can also check out the slide show here, as well as the Sulake website for more details on their marketing and advertising activities and future plans for brand expansion.

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