Editorial: Will Social VR Companies Have to Turn to Influencers to Promote Their Products?

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Recently, I have become fascinated by a particular kind of celebrity: the YouTube influencer. Yesterday, I watched a video by the successful YouTuber and real estate agent Graham Stephan, who is currently pulling in US$100,000 per month from his YouTube channel alone:

These are people who have been able to attract significant numbers of subscribers to their YouTube video content, and earn hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars a year with advertising and endorsement deals. For example, the 28-year-old Swedish YouTuber Felix Kjellberg (a.k.a PewDiePie) earned US$15.5 million last year, according to Forbes.

Now, you might remember that PewDiePie was one of the YouTubers who devoted coverage to the social VR platform VRChat in late 2017 and early 2018, which led to a surge in the number of concurrent users (here is a chart from Steam showing the number of concurrent users of VRChat over time, with an arrow pointing to that surge):

Now, I’m pretty sure that PewDiePie did not sign an endorsement deal with VRChat; he probably just stumbled across it and thought it was entertaining enough to share with his audience of 98.6 million viewers. VRChat was probably just as surprised as everybody else by this sudden spike in users. I remember how they struggled to keep their servers running smoothly to deal with this unexpected onslaught over the Christmas holidays in 2017, and they were eventually forced to implement a detailed safety and trust system to cope with the resulting tidal wave of harassment and griefing on the platform. (Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it!)

But obviously, PewDiePie and his fellow livestreamers on Twitch and YouTube were a powerful, free promotional tool for VRChat. (The Ugandan Knuckles meme helped a lot, too, by becoming a self-perpetuating cycle that helped popularize VRChat.) While the platform peaked at 28,500 simultaneous users, it has since settled down to around 6,000 concurrent users in recent months, which still makes it the most popular social VR platform so far.

It’s no secret that most social VR platforms are struggling to attract users. According to a statement made by Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg to Forbes about the Monstercat 8th anniversary concert event in Sansar:

Monstercat: Call of the Wild Experience is a VR space where the music label will host artist meet and greets, giveaways, and more. Altberg didn’t give me exact numbers but over a thousand people watched the show in VR via Sansar.

“Tens of thousands of people watched the concert across Twitch, Mixer, and Huya, and over a thousand people around the world attended the event in Sansar – across 6 continents, 65 countries, and 675 cities.  Fans feel more connected and immersed in the music they love, while artists, in turn, effectively reach more people and places in a single day than they’d reach on a real-life tour. “

Now, while I am slightly suspicious at that “675 cities” figure (I always knew you could determine country by IP address, but I wasn’t aware you could pinpoint IP addresses down to the city level), the fact remains that 1,000 users in one day is seen as a major success for Sansar. But compare this with the estimated 600,000 regular users for Second Life. And compare this with the estimated 7,500 users of the adult virtual world 3DX Chat, which, as one commenter noted (here and here):

… 3DXChat. It started as just a sex sim. Then they added building. Then users started building and visiting each others places, instead of paying for sex like they were supposed to.

It’s more successful than High Fidelity, Sansar, and Sinespace put together. About 7,500 paying users.

So, although 1,000 users in one day for one event in Sansar is a significant achievement, it still doesn’t take the platform to the next level, where Linden Lab can really start making money off it.

Which leads to my question: will Linden Lab and other social VR companies eventually have to pay YouTubers and other influencers to promote their platforms to a wider audience and attract more attention? The experience of VRChat was an instructive lesson on the advertising power of influencers like PewDiePie.

Linden Lab has already taken some tentative steps in this direction already, with links to Twitch livestreamers like UmiNoKaiju (which, as far as I know, went nowhere). It would appear that companies would get more of a bang for their buck if they entered into partnerships with people with much bigger followings on Twitch and YouTube. And frankly, that is not cheap. Viral Nation, one of the top influencer marketing agencies, which represents hundreds of successful influencers using Instagram, Vine, YouTube, and Snapchat, is only interested in customers who have a advertising budget in the range of $10,000 to $10,000,000.

Linden Lab and other social VR companies may decide that slower, organic growth is best. However, the pressure to attract a lot of users more quickly using high-profile influencers must be sorely tempting. Will Linden Lab, High Fidelity, Sinespace, and other social VR platforms eventually bite the bullet and sign deals with popular influencers? Only time will tell.

UPDATE Aug. 16th: I have been told that it is, indeed, possible to identify cities by IP address, which I did not know before!

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Twitch, YouTube, and VRChat

According to a recent online article by Polygon, a website that covers the gaming industry, The social VR world VRChat has attracted a lot of attention recently because of YouTubers and Twitch streamers:

Considering that VRChat is only available on Vive and Oculus Rift, the player base is still limited. The reason VRChat has skyrocketed in popularity is because of YouTubers and Twitch streamers who have brought attention to the game. One YouTuber in particular, Nagzz21, uploads near daily videos with his time in VRChat. These include weird dating scenarios, oblong takes on popular gaming avatars, drama happening between players and groups in VRChatand exploring all the different realms.

His videos have become so popular that VRChat Inc. has subscribed to him and promoted a view of his videos.

Unlike Sansar, which has focused so far on human avatars, VRChat (like High Fidelity) allows users to create non-human avatars (which requires some level of technical skill). The Polygon article notes:

Watch any VRChat video and there’s one thing that sticks out: It’s chockfull of characters that you already know. There are strange versions of Spongebob Squarepants, Pickle Rick from Rick and Morty, an assortment of Pokémon and too many anime characters to name.

This is one of VRChat’s biggest draws. Using a combination of character models, VRChat Inc.’s software development kit and Unity, players can create their own (unauthorized) avatars based on other popular figures from games, television, anime and movies.

…Multiple characters from popular culture, including Hank Hill from King of the Hill and Pikachu from Pokémon, can be seen interacting with one another. Players are able to pet Pikachu and Pokémon trainers can be seen in the distance. Much of the game’s appeal comes from players recklessly mixing and matching characters from various franchises and assuming their persona, virtually. Think cosplaying but without the expensive costume and in the comfort of your own home.

Obviously, this feature is a massive draw for some people. I’ve even had one Facebook commenter state that she will be making avatars for VRChat exactly because of that freedom to create whatever kind of avatar she wants, rather than create for Sansar. Of course, there is rampant IP theft happening in VRChat; the lawyers are going to have a field day if somebody tries to sell a Pikachu or Mickey Mouse avatar! Right now, it’s the wild west in VRChat, and everything is being given away for free.

Anyway, I thank what Sansar really needs is a few Twitch or YouTube livestreamers with a sufficiently large audience. For example, the phenomenally popular YouTube personality PewDiePie has posted a video of his VRChat adventures that has pulled in 2,828,337 views so far!

Of course, PewDiePie has over 58 million subscribers and makes millions of dollars from his YouTube channel! If I were to start YouTube livestreaming in Sansar, I would not have nearly the same pull! So the key here is not to get just anybody to start livestreaming Sansar. The key is to get a livestreamer with a large audience to start playing in Sansar.

As I have mentioned before, High Fidelity has already started a handful of livestream shows to promote their social VR world. To date, none has quite taken off like the VRChat streamers’ shows, but hey, at least they’re trying their best.

Of course, Drax and Strawberry’s Atlas Hopping remains relatively popular, and both Strawberry Singh and Draxtor Despres livestream each episode to YouTube. And just this month, Sam and Boden Linden launched another planned monthly show where they visit and comment on Sansar experiences. It’s a promising start.

So, what do you think it would take to get someone like PewDiePie to visit Sansar and livestream it? Anybody have any favours they could pull in??