Mining Virtual Worlds for Market Research

Sulake, creator of teen social-networking site Habbo, is drawing on its members across the globe to spot real-world trends

Imagine asking 42,000 tech-savvy tweens and teenagers around the globe about their buying and spending habits, as well as their brand preferences. How long would it take to conduct such market research? If you wanted to zero in on kids who regularly played online games or engaged in networked communities in Web-based virtual worlds, how would your market-research team target them and then verify their activity in these online parallel universes?

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."

Ozzy Osbourne Dropped By

Habbo is a cartoony virtual world where teens create retro, highly pixelated alter egos. They can meet up in public spaces, build and participate in social networks, listen to streaming music, and also create their own rooms and furnish them with digital versions of furniture and doodads that they pay real money for. Celebrities also enter Habbo as avatars: Heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne and pop star Lily Allen have visited Habbo's British site, while BMX champion Matt Hoffman's avatar hung out in the U.S. site. And major corporations including Nintendo (NTDOF.PK) buy advertising space, such as a virtual billboards, or sponsor themed gathering spots for avatars, such as Target's (TGT) Red Sky Lounge. To date, 76 million avatars have been created since Habbo opened in 1999. By contrast, 8.7 million avatars have been made in Second Life in its four-year life span.

In the past, Sulake had used data on flesh-and-blood Finnish teens gathered by youth market research specialist 15/30 to help identify real-life trends that they might apply to the design and development of Habbo sites. (There are different sites for various countries; teens in 29 nations worldwide log onto language-specific Habbo sites each day.) And Sulake also conducts panels within Habbo to receive feedback and ideas on game-play in Habbo games, as well as on elements of the virtual world's home page design.

But then Sulake realized it could tap its millions of avatars for information on real-life teen trends around the world. "We wanted to focus on how users are behaving and how they are buying. At first, we thought we would simply use [the information] for internal purposes, for product development," says Kuusikko. "Then we saw that we could do global research about teens' lives." So Sulake and 15/30 solicited respondents in 22 nations across Europe, North America, and Asia by sending a message to their avatars, which users received when they logged into their accounts. This linked to an external, Web-based questionnaire. The scope of the responses exceeded all expectations.

An International Portrait of Teens Today

Participants spent an average of 33 minutes answering dozens of questions on their backgrounds, tastes, and their shopping and media consumption habits. Participants were given a reward of Habbo credits to purchase virtual goods in Habbo.

Sulake's internal market-research team and the 15/30 staff audited the data for potentially fraudulent responses, which were removed (about 4.7% of all responses). The remaining 42,409 were then analyzed. 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, and 10% were 19 and older.

The survey breaks down the data by nation, and also presents an overall, international portrait of teens today, although the survey is limited by the number of nations with Habbo sites (India, for example, is not represented). The breadth of the data, and the report's clear organization, could help global companies better target teens in certain areas. British teens, for example, prefer rap and hip-hop over other musical genres, Brazilians prefer rock. Japanese kids like pop music the best. So recruiting a hard-rock celebrity to endorse a product to appeal to a British or Japanese audience could flop, whereas it might fly in Brazil.

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."

Questioning the Reliability of the Data

But other professional trend watchers warn that marketers should remember the demographic that's being represented, specifically, a teen who likes online games and prefers, or is at least comfortable with, having a digital alter ego. Teens who like to be authentic about their personalities and who lean toward uploading photographs to might differ in shopping habits from those who create cartoon-like selves in Habbo, cautions Heidi Dangelmaier, chief executive of 3iYing, a marketing firm that relies on teenage girls to develop marketing strategies for companies such as Virgin Mobile (VM).

"With Facebook and MySpace, it's clear that many teen girls, at least, are interested in reality, rather than in virtual worlds," says Dangelmaier, a former consultant to video game companies such as Electronic Arts (ERTS) and Sega (SGAMY.PK), for which she researched girls' relationships to games. "When surveying what kids want in the real world within an online multiplayer game or virtual world, it's important to ask, exactly who's in there?" she says.

Habbo relies on teens to provide information about themselves, says Teemu Huuhtanen, Sulake's president in charge of global development of Habbo. "We don't ask that much information when they register," he says. This raises questions about the reliability of the survey's data, of course. But the relative anonymity of the survey's responses is not much different from those garnered, say, by an online poll on a popular Web site. Verifying site visitors' true ages and identities is a broader challenge facing all Web sites, whether geared toward online gambling or social networking. Until that's resolved satisfactorily, self-reporting of personal data is all that's readily available.

For any youth marketer or trend specialist, access to 42,000-plus international teen opinions on what online gaming Web sites they frequently visit, what brands they like, or whether they'd rather use a PC for instant messaging than for playing games or purchasing goods can be valuable indeed. To gather such broad data on such a large scale within an online virtual world is certainly an innovative use of the gaming genre. With the second Global Habbo Youth Survey coming up this fall, the data from this year's book will have serve as a valuable baseline for a new type of teen marketing research.