Wednesday, March 07, 2007

A Second look @ Second Life

Second Life article. More articles on Ampersand.

A Second look @ Second Life

The Second Life tidal wave has finally crossed the Atlantic and is leaping on European shores. By in large, communication professionals are perplexed about whether they should surf the hype or not. But to their credit, they recognise a “PR opportunity” when they see one: over the last 6 months media coverage related to Second Life (SL) increased by nearly 150%[1] while SL blog mentions increased by 260%[2].

Joel CereThis begs the question: How long will the Second-Life media frenzy lasts? And if not for PR, what is the value of investing time and money with avatars when marketing budgets are under renewed pressure to deliver real dollar returns from real consumers?

While a reality check is overdue, I would argue that there is more than meets the eye in SL and there is genuine value to be extracted for brands that are willing to learn the dynamics of the ‘metaverse’ and play by its rules.

Second Life is a land of plenty, not of many
There are over 2.9 million registered users in SL[3] however most reports talk of about 300,000 active users and it is estimated that concurrent users are only around 20,000[4] (there are about twenty thousands users on average at the same time in SL). Marketers are interested in knowing their audience. Reliable estimates on SL demographics are hard to come by but it is thought that 25% to 45% of users come from outside the U.S, mostly from Canada, UK, Australia and Western Europe[5]. SL is developing fast outside North-America and local European enclaves such as a virtual Dublin or Parioli, a replica of a Roman street (the city, not the era…) are flourishing. The average SL user has a median age of 32 years old, with equal gender split[6].

Residents are marketing savvy and patriotic
Second Life residents have been busy shaping their “little” world since 2003 and it is only since last year than big corporations have discovered this vast untouched land, and decided to plant their flags on it. Some think that Second Life could turn into another ad funded Myspace. I won’t bet on that. The flood of announcements about companies being the first “fill in the blanks” in SL has triggered a growing backlash from residents against brands who are perceived to be invading their turf.[7] In addition, it is fair to say that the PR value of setting up a presence in SL follows the law of diminishing returns.

When corporations occupy virtual land, they often go unnoticed. The most popular places in SL are grassroots and resident -run (mostly in the casinos/nightclubs/ adult entertainment arena…). None of the corporate outposts is achieving decent traffic in comparison. According to New World Notes, the only corporate venue that gets decent traffic is Thomson who offers educational content, i.e. something of value[8]. A lesson to all?

The right rewards beckon companies with the right expectations
Despite the hype, SL is growing fast. And it is not alone: World of Warcraft passed 8 millions players in January[9] while the BBC is launching its own virtual world for children[10]. Consumers are moving away from watching TV commercials, magazines and online banners to places where they can be their own director and actor. If consumers are spending more time into virtual worlds it makes sense for their favourite brands to follow them in their virtual life. Toyota, Pontiac, American Apparel, Starwood Hotels are among those already established. Philips, ABN Amro and AOL have made announcement for 2007. Even the French socialist party has set-up an outpost in SL. Anecdotally; it is the only place where I saw avatars smoking…

To set expectations right, buying an island in SL or commissioning an avatar of your CEO will not terraform your brand into an epitome of coolness. The value is not in being present but in being active. Most companies in SL think about their presence from an advertising standpoint. That is a place for people to “experience the brand”. A visitor to such experiential venues (think agencies’ virtual offices or trendy company showrooms…) will quickly notice more often than less that these places are devoid of any life forms. SL is a platform for interaction and if there is no one to interact with, the fun of wandering up and down designer glass stairways quickly wane. Why stay or come back? Think about sustaining your investment: spend less in building a fancy shop and more in manning the shop floor!

Think co-creative marketing and immersive learning not clickable billboards
There are countless creative opportunities to promote your brand in SL, besides virtual billboards and showrooms. The only constraints are of the platform itself. Talking of which, it is worth mentioning that when more than 40 people/avatars are confined in one place, SL slows down considerably. When organising events it is therefore advised to prioritise quality over quantity as the inability to achieve the latter is seriously detrimental to the former. Technology blog Tech Crunch has another useful insight: holding SL only media announcements irritates time poor and technology challenged journalists[11] (who often writes about Second Life from their experience watching the corporate video on the website…)

SL residents like to create. Unless they are provided with tools to contribute to the “brand experience” there will treat your efforts the way you treat an ad poster: pretty to look at once, nothing more. Spending time with the SL natives and enrolling them to develop your SL footprint will increase the chance of successfully “blending in”. For example, you could launch a competition for SL residents to design your building or hire brand supporters to engage with visitors. If you stuck for ideas, just ask the natives. Could you sponsor local fashion designers or inviting a SL virtual car designer to your real design studio? How about limited digital versions of your products offered or sold underground to trendsetters to create some buzz? Or publishing a guide to the coolest venues?

The whole of SL is user generated, the very same trend driven by hard to reach Gen Y and Gen X consumers. What better place to gather first hand consumer insights or indulge in a bit of consumer ethnography? Your SL venue could be a perfect way to train your marketing staff across the world on social media, consumer trends and conduct workshops ; providing you with an opportunity to practice what you teach and to reduce your company’s carbon emissions.

By engaging with the virtual community and offering something of value, you will turn every interaction into a genuine understanding of what makes consumers want to create and converse. This is happening now, in virtual worlds, in Myspace or in Youtube. Stepping in Second Life is not about PR or showering avatars with ads. It provides an opportunity to understand the mindset of today’s connected consumers. This will turn your investment in Second Life into a real competitive advantage in First Life and deliver real dollar returns on your marketing investment.

-------------------------------------------------------------------------------- [1] Factiva. Percentage increase comparisons between months of August 2006 and January 2007.
[2] Blogpulse. Keyword mentions “Second Life” over last 6 months as of 25th of January 2007.
[3] as of 25th of January 2007.
second_life_stats_expanded_early_2006/ tavers.html
[6] t/oct2006/id20061030_869611.htm
[7] _banne.html

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you for this article which gives to everyone a broader perspective of ongoing events and strategies in SecondLife.