The hit TV series CSI: New York recently took the unprecedented step of sending one of its main characters into Second Life to search for a killer, a plot twist that gave many Americans their first look into virtual worlds.
Though virtual worlds like Second Life, Club Penguin, Habbo, There.com, and Webkinz have been around for years (attracting millions of loyal visitors), in many ways the media is taking a wait-and-see attitude before declaring this the "next big thing."
"Some technology outlets have covered it and may have even moved on," notes Joey Seiler, staff writer for VirtualWorldsNews.com and one of the few reporters dedicated to covering the space. "But with a lot of the mainstream press, it tends to be the culture writer covering it, as many technology writers haven't really written a lot yet."
Doug Mealy, president of OMPR, which represents Icarus Studios, a company that helps clients build online virtual worlds, says some of this reticence may be the result of the dot-com bust, which made reporters gun-shy about jumping on any bandwagon too early. "They're all still waiting for proof that these virtual worlds work as a business," he says, "and that will come in the form of a large, high-profile company committing large resources."
In the meantime, PR professionals representing virtual worlds are finding coverage by moving beyond the technology and business pages. "We have people who've launched their music careers on Second Life, or someone putting on a virtual production of Hamlet, and those are things you can pitch to entertainment or theater writers," explains Susie Hughes, SAE with Lewis PR, which represents Second Life and parent company Linden Lab.
"The coverage is broadening," adds Mat Small, director of media strategies for Millions of Us, an ad agency specializing in virtual worlds. "We now have ad beat writers, we have reporters looking at the sociological implications of virtual worlds, and they're all coming at it from their own domain."
Small suggests the best way to get a reporter to understand the space may be to provide that person with an avatar and set up an interview within a virtual world.
But perhaps the real key to media coverage is to realize the novelty is over. "We've definitely moved past the phase where being first is important, such as the first IP law firm in Second Life," adds Seiler. "Now, you have to make that connection to the real world relevant, because it's too easy to write off that Coca-Cola is virtual or that The Office has a Second Life."
Pitching... Virtual worlds
To appreciate a virtual world, reporters must experience it, so any press pitch should focus on getting them an avatar so they can see what the excitement is about
Reporters hate to be late to a trend, so focus on the many brands, such as MTV, CBS, and Disney, that have already committed resources to virtual worlds, and leverage analysts and market research that project growth going forward
Plenty of angles exist beyond just business and technology, so reach out to a variety of outlets - especially parenting publications, as some of the current virtual world growth is occurring in the teen, tween, and youth spaces