virtually great currency

The acquisition of SuperRewards by Adknowledge is a notable milestone in the evolution of virtual currency business models. This is the first time an independent virtual currency platform has been acquired by a company outside of the virtual goods category, and so the first time that a virtual currency has achieved monetization for someone other than its creators and users. We’ve moved into the peak of the third phase of business models for virtual currency.

The first phase was a sort of prehistory where virtual currency was a gameplay feature of massively multiplayer online games – points that players could gain through the completion of tasks, and use to acquire in-game items that were valuable for further progress in the game. Although points have been a feature of most videogames since the inception of the medium, the relevant new thing about MMOGs was the operation of a “persistent” online economic environment. That meant that even when particular players weren’t online, the service constantly maintained an environment where items of value could be acquired and traded. Much of the trading of items for value was “off-service” – often against the game rules – but this was the first step in virtual currencies breaking free of gameplay rules.

The second phase started when online services that were not solely game-oriented used virtual currencies to encourage trading of service assets – this time trading currency for service items wasn’t against the rules, but specifically designed to encourage sales within the service. Korea’s Cyworld was a pioneer in this use, with “Cyholics” using “acorns” as a medium of exchange for digital presents that users could buy for themselves and each other. Chinese Internet portal Tencent built QQ coins into a $900 million economy, while in the U.S., Second Life users are heading towards $450 million (in U.S. Dollars) of Linden Dollar transactions. The authorized use of virtual currency within these services led naturally to implicitly or explicitly authorized use of their virtual currencies outside of the traditional boundaries of the service, demonstrated by Chinese users buying real-world items for QQ coins and Second Life users setting up 3rd-party currency exchanges and virtual goods stores. (As an illustration of the differences in culture, it’s interesting to note that the Chinese government eventually banned the use of virtual currency for “real” items, and that Linden Lab rebuilt or acquired the third party services.)

In the third phase, we have businesses that were natively built as a platform for virtual currency to be used on other services (rather than a feature of an economy within a more comprehensive service). Some have stayed closer to virtual currency’s MMOG roots, like PlaySpan and LiveGamer, while others have tried to ride the wave of social media apps platforms, like TwoFish and SocialGold. SuperRewards and OfferPal brought a new twist by using marketing offers as the underlying value to the virtual currency.

This part takes a little bit of explaining. For any currency to gain favor with a user base, there must be some underlying value to the medium of exchange – from a consumer point of view, this is sometimes expressed as a demand that the currency be “backed” by something of value. In ye olden days, governmental currency was backed by precious metal; in theory you could turn in your dollars to the government in return for equivalent value in gold. Most governmental currencies came off the gold standard decades ago, and are now backed by the declaration of the government that the currency is legal tender. The meaning of this declaration is a little murky both in theory and in practice.

Suffice to say that there are virtual currencies that emulate most of the historical models of real governmental currencies. e-Gold tried the gold-backed model, to disastrous result. Some virtual currencies are run as essentially stored value systems for governmental currency, so ultimately they are backed by the same declaration of the government. QQ coins to some extent, and Linden Dollars to a greater extent, are free-floating media of exchange that are backed by the commercial viability of their operators – a private rather than governmental declaration of value (this is not as revolutionary as it may seem, since in many ways it’s similar to airline miles and other customer loyalty programs).

By using marketing offers as the underlying value, virtual currency operators can sidestep some of the difficulties involved in demonstrating that a currency is sufficiently “backed” to satisfy customer demand for stable value. This technique introduces significant complexity and cost by introducing many additional parties to the value chain, but now SuperRewards has demonstrated (to its investors if not yet a skeptical public) that this kind of backing does create a valuable virtual currency. OfferPal is not far behind, and of course is now far ahead in terms of its ability to maintain an independent business.

So what’s coming for the fourth phase of virtual currency business models? That’ll have to be the subject of another post. But for now the developments to watch are the competition between Facebook and MySpace in their own virtual currencies, app developer currencies from companies like Zynga, and the continued progress of OfferPal.

still misunderstanding micropayments

Please, Shirky, don’t hurt me.

See, in the past Clay Shirky has expressed some healthy, justifiable skepticism about Second Life, or rather, the hype around SL in 2006-07.  And on a scale of one to infinity, he knows about a googol (old skool usage) more about the future of Internet and new media than I do.  So I’m loathe to disagree with him on any topic.  But I’ve got to chime in about micropayments.

The quick recap:  Shirky says that publishers are grasping at straws if they think that micropayments will save their dying business models.  Matthew Gertner hopes that publishers might still find that magic blend of quality and scarcity that allows them to charge micropayments for content.  I think both misunderstand the demonstrably successful business models for micropayments.

Shirky’s right when he says that “users don’t like being nickel-and-dimed” for content.  But that’s not what happens in the successful models, not from the users’ point of view.  Users are making small payments, but they’re not paying nickels and dimes, they’re paying significant amounts of dollars over relatively short periods of time.  They are paying for the convenience of not making micropayments while making micropayments.  Huh?

If “micropayments” means anything anymore, on a pragmatic definition it means “payment of an amount that is typically too small to justify its own transaction costs.”  Depending on volume, merchant fees and chargeback rates, the $0.99 price of a song is probably not large enough to justify transaction costs on a transaction-by-transaction basis – but that’s not how iTunes does it.  iTunes aggregates charges and only incurs transaction costs when the aggregate charge supports the costs.  This is a seamless experience for the user, and together with the presentation of a broad catalog, a pleasant user interface, and smart search and recommendations, this service is well worth paying for.

Shirky believes that iTunes demonstrates that “the only real lesson of small payment systems generally . . . is that if you want something that doesn’t survive contact with the market, you can’t let it have contact with the market.”  Ironically, the internal contradiction of this statement is that it assumes that the value is in the content.  But the value is not in the content, as many people, including Shirky, have pointed out.

The point is even clearer in Shirky’s other example, Cyworld, a Korean social networking site where users can buy each other “virtual gifts.”  Facebook introduced the same feature in 2007, quickly giving birth to a virtual economy that some estimate at $100 million a year.  Shirky says these kinds of services are a “monopoly within the environment” that “prevent[s] competition for pricing of digital goods.”

fbvirtualgoodsWhat?! Think about it, how can there be competition for pricing on goods that are worthless?  Those little virtual gifts that sell for a buck a piece – the flowers, hearts, puppies, etc. – there ain’t no monopoly on them, it’s not a closed environment as far as those goods are concerned.  I can take them wherever I want (notwithstanding copyright claims, which aren’t the point here).  You see, there they are, 21 virtual items right next to this paragraph.  Did I just steal $21 from Facebook (or worse, from Susan G. Komen)?

Nope, I didn’t.  Because nobody gives a damn about those items here on my blog.  (Well, maybe someone will make a copyright claim that I’m not making fair use of them, as I think I am, but again that’s not the point.)  People don’t pay for those little bits of clip art, and I certainly wouldn’t be interested in paying to display them here.  People who buy virtual goods are paying to have those bits of content show up on the service of Facebook, of Cyworld, etc.  They are paying to have it show up on the profile of a friend, they are paying for the social graph, they are paying for all of the reliability, usability, network effects and ego-fulfillment of those services.  And they’re making micropayments, and the services are again aggregating the micropayments in a way that is part of a convenient and seamless user experience.  The content in Facebook is not “trapped” in some kind of monopoly – the service of Facebook is in full and open competition with every other social service out there.

So that’s all I have to say about that, but I have to end with a little disclaimorama:  Second Life may have had a “virtual economy” of over $360 million last year, but that’s not necessarily where my thinking comes from on this.  I’ve been looking at things like Cyworld since I was a VC at a Korean shop, long before I joined Linden.  Disclaimer necessary because there’s whole reams of thought about whether the content on SL has value off of SL, which I am not getting into and not taking any position on here.