It’s no secret that the Millennial Generation immerses itself in communication technologies. Gen Yers were raised in a digital world, and everyday life includes the extensive use of social media platforms to research and share information.

So as this generation enters the workforce, how do direct selling companies evolve their traditional sales and training methods to appeal to them?

At the upcoming DSA Annual Meeting in June, DSEF will sponsor “AVATAR WORKSHOP: Using Avatars and Virtual Worlds to Captivate Gen Y,” a workshop that will demonstrate a digital approach to captivating a new generation of direct sales distributors and customers.

Attendees will learn about virtual worlds and how to use avatars—online digital personas that allow users to navigate the virtual environment and interact with other participants—for training and marketing to increase sales, educating and motivating distributors, collecting customer insights for new product development and promoting new products to consumers.

“We want attendees to come away with a vision of how they can engage a new generation of customers and distributors,” says Professor Michael Solomon, Director of the Haub School of Business Center for Consumer Reseach at Saint Joseph’s University, who will co-present the session. “These ‘Digital Natives’ increasingly shop and interact on social media like Facebook. The virtual world platforms we will discuss are the next generation of the online marketplace—they combine the immediacy of Facebook with vivid visual capabilities. Virtual worlds will allow DSA businesses to promote their products and ramp up engagement in traditional venues like home parties as well as in new venues like digital house parties.”

According to co-presenter Greg Marshall, Charles Harwood Professor of Marketing & Strategy at Rollins College, the session will be a little avant-garde. “The slide deck we have put together is not a normal slide deck,” he says. “We are showing a lot of examples of avatar-driven communications and where training could be done in a virtual world environment. Hopefully it will open up attendee interest and even understanding of what is possible using a virtual-world approach, whether it is through customer contact, training, branding or messaging—those are the things that are the real opportunities. We’re hoping this session will be a first salvo at raising interest on the part of the direct selling community.”

The basis for the workshop is a research pilot study funded by DSEF and led by Professors Solomon and Marshall in which a virtual world was constructed for the mark® division of Avon. In July 2010 Solomon and Marshall conducted a series of conference calls with mark’s marketing and online teams to create a virtual sales representative training venue. The virtual venue was completed in August 2010, and this past February mark employees were invited to enter the venue and interact as avatars.

Why is this type of academic research so important? Solomon says forward-looking businesspeople understand the value of staying on top of new technologies and business models, but may not have the luxury of exploring these options because of the ongoing demands of running their companies. “This type of research bridges the gap between new possibilities and everyday practice,” he says. “It reflects a model of cooperation where academic and practitioner partners each contribute a unique set of resources, and an innovative match-making organization like DSEF provides the glue that holds them together.”

Making academic research practical for direct sellers is critical because the divide between academic research and traditional market research—or applied research—is getting narrower and narrower, says Marshall. “Professors are really being held more and more accountable to multiple stakeholders. It’s not just about publishing our work in obscure journals any longer, but hopefully being able to add value to the fields that are connected to our research.”

Marshall added that this type of research has important implications for direct sellers who want to get ahead of the game, not the least of which is that the generation they are dealing with now—whether it is the new sales representatives or the new end-user customers or even individuals working at the corporate level. “You are dealing so much more with the millennial group—that’s the apple of all direct sellers’ eyes right now—and that group lives in a different space from Baby Boomers and Gen X types,” he said. “They want to be able to go out and find out things on their own. They are perfectly comfortable in the virtual space. For training purposes, there are so many interesting applications, such as using a virtual-world approach. For the end-user customer, direct sales has a lot of opportunities to bring them into the virtual world to demonstrate products. It is going to be a brave new world out there when it comes to taking product to market.”

The Avatar Workshop will be held on Monday, June 4, from 10:15 A.M. to 11:30 A.M.