A new world is waiting to be conquered by food manufacturers and retailers. Social networking websites such as Second Life and YouTube provide an unprecedented opportunity for companies to market their products and services to a consumer demographic that can be difficult to reach through tried and tested channels. Bernice Hurst investigates.

So far, food industry presence on social networking sites has been restricted to Burger King ads on YouTube and Coca Cola sponsorship of a concert on Second Life (SL). But grocery companies are getting in on the act with Unilever promoting its Axe deodorant brand through Gamekillers, a group of people who interfere with potential seducers who use the product, on My Space. Procter & Gamble, too, has taken the plunge through a contest encouraging students to compete for free concert tickets by joining a group that uses Crest Whitestrips.

Social networking applications are bigger than blogs or focus groups. Their reach is potentially greater than print media. Sibley Verbeck, chief executive of consultancy Electric Sheep Company, told the New York Times that there has been a 10-20% growth in the number of people entering virtual worlds each month for the last three years. SL has more than one million residents and posts a daily bulletin on how much money has been spent in the preceding 24 hours. A total of US$500,000 is no longer unusual, with growth estimated at 15% per month.

Populated by avatars, alter-egos created by real people that behave in ways that defy physical, real world restrictions, networking sites still mirror reality. Avatars can change the way they look and dress, meet other people, buy and sell things and, generally, build a life over which they may feel they have more control than in the real world. This makes many believe that their power as consumers is virtually limitless.

One amazon.com application bridging the gap between real and virtual worlds enables avatars to “do searches within the store, put objects into your cart and initiate the checkout process, all remaining in character with your avatar,” the company’s Web Services Evangelist, Jeff Barr, told Reuters reporter Adam Pasick. Products from amazon.com extend far beyond their initial offering of books and music, now including both gourmet food products and everyday groceries. And they’re not the only ones selling real products to virtual customers.

Everything from sports shoes to music and cars is now available although it isn’t all smooth sailing. Some advertisers have protested that social networking sites and blogs are rife with mockery of their products and commercials.

Not everyone who creates a virtual network of friends for themselves wants to be bombarded with marketing material. Objections have been raised by protesters known as the Second Life Liberation Army (SLLA) who launched attacks on retail stores on the site. Others who have designed and started selling their own virtual products are concerned that real world companies will invade and take over their new turf. As avatars fly and teleport themselves, antagonising them is not a good idea. The likes of Wal-Mart and Tesco may one of these days decide to purchase their own island, as it’s called, and add even more outlets to their empires but they will have to be creative and persuasive to prevent the sort of guerrilla attack that executives from Sun Microsystems suffered during a recent ‘in-world’ press conference. As they were speaking, members of the audience joined them on stage. Other corporate events have been sabotaged by placard carriers from SLLA.

Jeff Benjamin of advertising agency Crispin Porter & Bogusky admits that the success of ads on networking sites is unpredictable. Measuring devices will no doubt follow soon, though, especially if members begin to buy online or follow links to e-commerce sites. No one yet has managed to find a way of counting customers who research online and buy offline but this may just be another new opportunity about to knock.