The virtual world is rapidly encroaching on the real world and, within 10 years, the biggest influence on all purchases will be the virtual experience associated with them.
Gartner believes that, by 2015, more money will be spent marketing and selling to multiple anonymous online personas than marketing and selling offline.
This transition in customer interaction is being driven by Generation Virtual, also known as Generation V.
Gartner analysts says Generation V is the recognition that general behaviour, attitudes and interests start to blend together in an online environment. The idea of Generation X (and later Generation Y) was conceived as a way to understand new generations that appeared not to have connections to the culture icons of the baby boomers. Marketers use the categories of baby boomers, Generation X and Generation Y to segment the population for targeting products and services with a focus on age.
However, as more baby boomers (who are living longer) and the younger generations go online and participate/communicate in a flat virtual environment, the generational distinctions break down. Customers will hop across segments at various times of life for various reasons and are likely to act like several generations at any given time.
"For Generation V, the virtual environment provides many aspects of a level playing field, where age, gender, class and income of individuals are less important and less rewarded than competence, motivation and effort," says Adam Sarner, principal analyst at Gartner. "For example, an 11-year old individual can be the leading 'go to' person for advice on how to upgrade/hack a digital video recorder (DVR) for more recording space.
"An unpopular office worker can be a highly revered, accomplished 40th-level half-elf in World of Warcraft. The opportunity for reputation, prestige, influence and personal growth provides a powerful social draw for the masses to spend more time in a virtual world."
For companies, it means access to new economies. For example, by 2030, there will be twice as many people over age 65 in the US with 70 times the real median income of their corresponding age group in 1990. They will be spending more time online engaging as Generation V members.
Companies will have new reach (and access to their growing discretionary income) that they could not get before.
In the UK, an example includes SAGA Zone, an online community for people over 50 where individuals can network with friends, share interests in online forums and receive holiday, health or insurance deals tailored to their age group.
"While traditional wisdom has focused on customer identification for one-to-one targeted marketing campaigns, cross-selling and so on, the reality of people creating multiple anonymous personas (such as in Second Life or World of Warcraft), blogs, online communities (such as YouTube and Digg), and the sheer power of their influence means that every customer will have multiple online personas driving business relationships with companies," Sarner says.
"Companies will need to shift from collecting personal data about individual customers toward collecting more-complete and more-relevant data around online customer behaviour and influence on others," he adds. "Companies will need new processes, new skills and a restructuring of how data is collected and used as they shift from demographic to psychographic insight.
"If companies follow a truly persona-centric approach, they can use the highly relevant information the persona leaves. Although the real person may never be known, far more intimate information of the persona's actions, personality, lifestyle habits and attitudes can be collected and exploited for business goals."
Recommendations for targetting Generation V include:
* Companies should organise their products and services around multiple online personas.
* Sell to the persona, not the person. A persona will show you how it wants to be treated.
* Create virtual environments as a way to orchestrate customer exploration toward purchases.
* Shift investment from known customers to unknown ones. Focus on the influencers within the meritocracy.
* Develop and retain or outsource new skills to attract, connect, contribute and gain insight from Generation V and its virtual environment.