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Justin Bovington explains the advantages of taking marketing to the virtual world.
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Residents and businesses have been piling into Second Life during 2006, but a marketing firm believes that we'll see the virtual world walk back through the mirror next year.

Second Life, the massive multiplayer online world, allows users to log on through the Internet and create 3-D computer-generated identities. Justin Bovington, who controls the in-world character Fizik Baskerville, has made his firm one of the premier public relations and marketing companies to work inside the world that San Francisco-based Linden Lab has created.

Bovington, the chief executive of London-based Rivers Run Red, has been using Second Life as a 3-D virtual meeting place for his partners and clients since December 2003, when there were only 400,000 residents. Second Life's population recently topped 1.65 million.

Rivers Run Red is based in the real world and has found previous success with seminars and trade fairs, DVDs and CD-ROMs, mailers and catalogs, as well as mobile phone and Internet avenues.

However, Bovington has found innovative marketing uses in the virtual realm for a client list that includes

Disney

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, Adidas,

Vodafone

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, the BBC and even 80's pop rockers Duran Duran.

"Media planning is becoming harder," he says. "It's about finding the alternative to television advertising."

While he and his company have been pouring content into the virtual world since 2003, the flow can also be reversed.

"In 2006, we were about brands coming into Second Life. In 2007, it'll be about Second Life going out into real life," Bovington says. "Second Life could be transitioned to mobile phones. It can be a bigger 3-D tool. It will be a facilitator, an aggregator service.

"It will be as though Second Life will walk back through the mirror into the real world," continues Bovington. "It's not just enough for us to have an island in there anymore. All our projects in 2007 are based on the idea that you've got to be much more clever."

Bovington and his company purchased a virtual private island from Linden Lab when Second Life was still in its infancy stage. His Avalon island became the Rivers Run Red virtual homestead, where Bovington inserts his clients for interaction with both his company, other businesses and residents.

"It is a totally immersive experience in a very, very different way for the consumer," he says. "It's transcended the original application into something very different. It's allowing people to reach out and touch consumers in a very immediate way."

For all of his virtual work, Bovington estimates that Rivers Run Red saved $175,000 last year by reducing costs related to air travel, accommodations and the physical creation of marketing materials and models. Because companies are able to connect quicker and easier with users for immediate feedback, he's finding cost-saving measures everywhere he turns.

"We did a focus group that got some fantastic feedback," Bovington says. "It normally would've cost us $40,000 to $50,000 to do, but we got better information in Second Life with just $5,000 to $10,000."

After working on marketing and promotional items for the Disney film "The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" and creating the virtual presence for Adidas, Bovington is focusing now on media channels in Second Life.

Rivers Run Red is creating a broadband television network in Second Life. Dubbed Virtual Life TV, the 24-hour-a-day broadcast schedule is sure to draw attention in both the virtual and real world. It is expected that at launch, Bovington will introduce the UK's Channel 4 as well as the Sci-Fi channel to the virtual world.

"We gradually have created some momentum," Bovington says. "People will be finding where the experience is cross-pollinating a lot of brands, so we're supporting each other."

The firm is also going to be working with Paramount Pictures with movie trailers. While Internet visitors are using

Apple's

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QuickTime program now to stream trailers, Bovington sees Second Life as the next step in the evolution of previews.

"Trailers will work a lot better in Second Life," he declares. "It's a group experience. It's extremely immersive. It will be the difference between sitting at home watching TV and going out to the cinema."

While he has no qualms about sharing his view of Second Life's future, Bovington says it will not matter what his company or other companies do on day one, but instead on what they plan to do further out.

"We're still very much writing the book about how it's coming together, but it's very exciting," Bovington says. "The future is going to be using Second Life as part of the media mix. It's a content generator. You will have integrate it in the marketing campaign."

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.