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).
- Jeffrey Bardzell, PhD - Human-Computer Interaction Design Program at Indiana University School of Informatics
- Shaowen Bardzell, PhD - Department of Kinesiology at Indiana University
- Rick Murray - President of Me2Revolution at Edelman
- Ilya Vedrashko - Emerging Media Strategist at Hill Holliday
- Reuben Steiger - CEO at Millions of Us
- C.C. Chapman - Vice President of New Marketing at crayon
What's all the fuss about, and is it worth the effort?
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.