Virtual Identities from Virtual Environments

Virtual Identities from Virtual Environments

Melvin Prince (Southern Connecticut State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60566-792-8.ch018
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The creation of identities in immersive online digital environments has become commonplace in consumer behavior. Consumers frequently enter into socially networked, computer mediated environments (CME’s) as avatars. A user can design his or her avatar by choosing typologies of facial features, body types and clothing styles. The chapter concerns Avatar analysis as a system for generating and analyzing consumer information of practical value to marketers. Avatar analysis enhances understanding of brand perceptions and meanings, discovers new ways of positioning and differentiating brands, and provides insights for improving the effectiveness of brand communications. Using websites such as Second Life to draw avatars, consumer identity projections are elicited based on consumers’ perceptions and interpretations of their own digital figure drawings i.e., virtual social identities of consumers and brands. These identity projections disclose their real and ideal selves, brand-as-a-person, and imagery of a typical brand user.
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Avatars And Consumer Insights

Perceptions of Avatars’ traits have been studied under conditions of experimental manipulation. Nowak and Rauh (2006) used a static context for presentation of digitally created, experimenter-produced, avatars to which participants responded. Participants’ perceptions of anthropomorphism, androgyny, credibility, homophily, attraction and likelihood of choice for interaction were obtained in response to experimental avatars to which they were exposed. Participants were found to choose perceived attractive and credible avatars to represent themselves. They voiced a preference for avatars that matched their own gender and regarded female avatars as more attractive than male avatars.

Avatars have also been used for applications in clinical psychology. Clinical applications include using avatars to diagnose and treat phobias, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, sexual disorders, and neurological damage. In a framework for future research in the area (Gaggioli, Mantovani, Castelnuovo, Wieberhold, and Riva, 2003), three levels of analysis involving avatars have been identified: (1) identification of salient physical features, (2) simulation of the virtual human’s behavioral realism, and (3) relational or interactional potentialities.

The fields of consumer marketing and buyer behavior have increasingly

focused on avatars. This is evidenced by recent research into the influence of virtual identities for online shopping, the impact of avatars as online customer service representatives, and even as virtual human branded product introductions available on the web. Avatars have been found to serve as effective online sales agents generating higher levels of retailer satisfaction, more positive product attitudes and stronger purchase intentions. Characteristics mediating these effects include perceptions of the avatar’s attractiveness and expertise, as these interact with levels of product involvement (Holzwarth, Janiszewski and Neuman, 2006).

In one study, it was found that animated avatars do not heighten consumer trust of a product. However, the authors recommend that future studies present avatars with increased vividness, facial expressions and better synchronization with online marketing communications (Qiu and Benbasat, 2005). Intention to use avatar-related products was successfully predicted in another study (Chung, 2005). Ease of use of the avatar, its perceived usefulness, and attitudes toward the avatar were key determinants of the intention to use the avatar-related product.

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