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Getting (a) Second Life

Second_life_2 This post is long overdue, but I want to acknowledge the great panel put together by MITX and One to One Interactive last week in Boston: Get a Second Life: Exploring the 3D World.

The discussion couldn't have been more timely, as big brands like IBM, Toyota, and Ciscso (in the last week alone) rush to buy "land" within Second Life, the 3D virtual world that is the latest "it" spot to try and reach an ever-elusive consumer base and demonstrate marketing finesse.

MITX supplied a great cross-section of SL participants, each with his or her own unique experiences with and impressions of the medium (albeit all positive-leaning, since most of these people earn a living off of SL in some capacity. To their credit, all were very candid when discussing the challenges and shortcomings of the virtual world, and audience members were not shy about sharing their own skepticism. An in-world client perspective would've been a great addition, though).

The participants:

The agenda:

What's all the fuss about, and is it worth the effort?

The highlights:

SL has been around for three years. While well-known brands didn't establish in-world versions of themselves until more recently, SL has had a fairly robust virtual economy since the early days (based on its in-world currency, Linden Dollars). But the news last month of the first Second Life millionaire finally got the attention of the mainstream press. And now SL is mentioned (seemingly) everywhere.

Its popularity has not come without controversy, including questions about Linden Lab's (the creator of SL) ability to manage the fast-growing community; unrest among long-time residents who resent the influx of mainstream marketers to their world; questions about the real audience numbers; challenges with scalability, stability, interoperability, and security. Let's face it: SL relatively unregulated, uncontrollable, imperfect and unproven.

However, like other elements of the Long Tail, SL shouldn't be ignored. It's essentially the first global society, with 40% of its users outside the US, and a population that exceeds the size of some countries (as Rick Murray pointed out). More and more people are creating avatars and spending hours in-world; it fulfills a basic human need to connect, and the 3D attributes are appealing to us as humans.

Is it the Holy Grail of marketing? Absolutely not. Just like any other channel - on its own - is not. SL is simply one more element in the larger continuum of social media. At a minimum, marketers should be aware of its existence and take the time to understand how people are interacting with - and within - it.

As with any new channel (mobile comes to mind), it's imperative to think about *how* people use it and then figure out how you can be relevant to them when they're in that mindset. Mainstreaming of SL needs to be done with sensitivity: if residents feel alienated by big-brand entrants, they may leave and the whole community could collapse. To that end, marketers need to understand the social structure within SL and either add value to the community or stay out of it altogether. C.C. Chapman advises marketers to not let their brands be shackled by real life. Don't think about campaigns; instead, introduce initiatives with long-lasting utility.

And what about the ROI? Rick Murray (I believe) noted that it's too late to gain the first-mover publicity, and it's too early to gauge real revenue opportunities. Nonetheless, the ripple effect of a SL event can be big: while a "successful" in-world event may only attract ~50 people (technology limitations prevent much more), those participants tend to be influentials who will turn around and blog about their experiences to their own audiences. This can then get picked up by the media, and the overall exposure is exponentially bigger.

In addition, SL provides a good forum for research. Activities within SL are highly trackable, which gives marketers a good opportunity to listen, engage, collaborate, and co-create. 3D interfaces offer a long-term opportunity to interact with constituents in a different way...a chance to observe socialization, interaction, and consumption of branded content. In this age of consumers-in-control, co-creation in Second Life may be more palatable than co-creation in Real Life.

If you want to read more on the topic, there are a lot of conversations going on in the blogosphere.
Illya Vedrashko shares his thoughts on calculating ROI from SL - as well as his slides from the panel presentation - here. And Charlie O'Donnell and David Churbuck have started an excellent point-counterpoint on the subject (thanks to JaffeJuice for the tip).

And if you're a markter that's curious to see what the virtual world is all about, join iVillage tonight for their Girls Night Out event in Second Life, or take the MarketingProf tour of SL on January 11 - this one designed especially for marketers.

UPDATE: Reuben Steiger shared his take on the MITX panel in his morning Roadcast #2. Worth a listen.

Comments

NYCA

Second Life feels like a step on the way to something else. The blend of real and virtual... off our screens and in the real world. As for advertisers... it is easier for many brands to create their ideal selves in Second Life, versus improve the real thing on this side of the screen!

Michelle Edelman is director of strategic planning at NYCA, a full-service marketing agency that grows businesses with inspired ideas. To find out how NYCA can grow your business, log on to www.nyca.com.

Stephanie

Hi, Tim -

Thanks for the comment. You're certainly not alone in your assessment (see David Churbuk's comments via the link above).

I guess I would just offer this food for thought:

1) If people are there (and they are), it can't be ignored.

2) As a marketer, you should fully eplore it and make an informed decision about whether it makes sense for your [client's] brand, before summarily dismissing it. I'm not implying that you *haven't* already done this, just stating my opinion.

3)It's definitely not for everyone, and I actually haven't created any branded content in-world (I do have an avatar), but I could see it playing an intriguing role in a larger campaign, or simply as an insights tool.

4)It could be indicative of a new way of interacting with online content, and with each other...and that is the most fascinating aspect for me. We've watched as instant messaging and RSS have started to supplant email as preferred methods of info dissemination and communication. We're now seeing IM (and the message boards of yore) evolving into fully-featured (avatars, multimedia, etc.) environments. Once the technology improves (as it surely will...SL is a proprietary platform; imagine when the open source crowd starts replicating these worlds)I can see all kinds of applications for this: better social networking apps, virtual trade shows, support groups...or 3D commerce like Amazon is testing.

Take a listen to Ruben Steiger's Roadcast (link above). He's obviously a huge proponent of SL, but his firm has some real experiences to share on the early adopters.

Only time will tell!

Charlie

Thanks for the link... Your comments were fair and on point. Would like to follow up! Drop me a line.

TimH

Interesting article, but I am just not buying the whole SL thing. Research? To whom? The ~15K people who may be in there at one time or another? For what? How do the SL products and real life (or is First Life what the kids are saying?) products overlap? Commerce? The net transactions are decidedly small time. Has this trend has already come and gone?

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