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Marketing in Second Life: Virtual reality, real opportunity?

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3rd Apr 2008
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Second Life may be a virtual world, but it is also an economy that is expanding rapidly. Furthermore, it is now on the radar of a growing proportion of the marketing community. John Ozimek examines the pros and cons of entering these online worlds.

By John Ozimek

So, just how do you market to a vampire? Or what about a 42-year-old mother of two, who’s just shaved 20 years off her age and gone back to college as a cheerleader? To say nothing of the 42-year-old guy who’s just done ditto.

These may not be the sort of issues you expected to have to deal with when you chose marketing as a career. Increasingly, however, they are challenges that face companies – and marketers – sticking a very timid toe into new online worlds such as Second Life. To a lesser degree, they are questions that face anyone seeking to piggyback on the explosion of online social networking techniques.

For those who haven’t come across it, Second Life (SL) is a virtual reality. It’s a place that exists only on the net. Once there, you take on a character, a name and an avatar (your body form) – and are able to move through the worlds that individuals have constructed. You can interact with others, use objects within SL, buy land and build on it.

The possibilities are not limitless. But they take you a long way beyond 'this mortal coil'. Think Matrix. But with less stable servers.

"Second Life has a large and growing community: over 13 million members, with about 10% of those active in the last two months."

 

There are two aspects of SL that make it of interest to marketers. First, it is an economy – and one that is growing apace. Things that you make in SL can be bought and sold in SL. The usual currency is Linden dollars, which currently trade at c. L$1,000 to the £1.

As of March 2008, there were some L$4.7 billion in circulation: that is, nearly £5 million of real money which has been converted into virtual currency. For most players, this is small change. In February 2008, just over 100,000 individuals spent L$500 or so – less than 50p - on a purchase. On the other hand, 400 individuals spent over £1,000 – and this ignores the side transactions that go on in association with SL.

If you want to build a home base in SL, and you haven’t the skills to do it yourself, it will easily cost as much – or more – than the design and implementation of a high quality website. It's big enough for the Inland Revenue to have noticed: you will be taxed on your earnings in SL; and the tax bill will not be in $L.

Second, SL has a large and growing community: over 13 million members, with about 10% of those active in the last two months. That’s not massive in a worldwide context: nor is it trivial.

It is also regrettably fashionable. Marketers who would never in a month of Sundays be seen dead in a role playing game, suddenly see this as the place to be. Big names, like Reuters, Nissan and Coca-Cola now have a presence in SL. Even countries are getting in on the act: Sweden set up the first ever virtual embassy in SL almost two years ago.

Double-edged sword

Such presence serves a range of purposes. A site can be little more than an information point – although with clever mixing of SL and web techniques, it can act as an extremely powerful online resource or brochure. It can be used for meetings, and recruitment: again, either passively (providing job details and harvesting CVs) or in a very few cases, as a place in which to conduct a virtual interview.

With a little more resource – which probably means employing staff to spend their entire day on site in SL - it can even act as a front office for customer service. After all, if you spend a lot of time online and you have a problem with your car, what would be more natural than to go and talk to a 'real' person in their virtual head office.

Another promising use for SL is in interactive training – especially where such training can be wrapped around a series of interactive tasks. Learning through games is a definite strength.

So all is rosy, and marketers just need to employ the occasional SL builder? Er, not exactly. The experience of working with the new social networks has been decidedly double-edged and likely to fall prone at any moment to the 'teenage dad' syndrome. That is, the 40-something hip dude who reckons he knows how to 'get on down' and 'groove' with his children. Oh dear.

With a little more resource – which probably means employing staff to spend their entire day on site in SL - it can even act as a front office for customer service. After all, if you spend a lot of time online and you have a problem with your car, what would be more natural than to go and talk to a 'real' person in their virtual head office.

The less familiar you are with a medium – be it print, broadcast or electronic – the more likely it is that you will commit a faux pas when you try to use it for commercial ends. The newer the medium, the more work you have to put in just to understand the basics. Even that is not enough: for communications that are truly sympathetic to a given medium, you probably need to immerse yourself in it; to go beyond rational understanding, and live the experience.

A slightly condescending game that gets played out in SL is 'spot the newbie'. That is: anyone can register, log on and be a player in minutes; but how you look, how you move, how you interact with the environment is an instant give-away. Experienced SL’ers display a degree of verisimilitude that is forever denied the casual visitor.

Jump into SL and start throwing your weight around without first being prepared to be a novice is likely to backfire very quickly. And beware: SL has its own version of denial of service attacks. The simplest way to take a site down is to swamp it. So far, attacks have been restricted to viruses. However, the day cannot be far off when, say, in response to some particularly crass real world decision a company finds 10,000 members of SL camped out on its virtual doorstep.

OK. It's not real. The site goes down: it comes back up again. But then: there is also the PR fall out to consider. An interesting question is when and under what circumstances China could ever follow Sweden into this world: one imagines a site that is beautifully constructed - employing a full-time security staff committed to ejecting various protesters.

And it does matter. Because of the resources that a company might waste on this sort of project: and, as above, because of the PR fall-out. You cannot always guarantee instant success. You may be able to minimise the risks of failure.

Marketing to vampires

That takes us back to the question at the very beginning: just how do you market to a vampire. Many marketers are making the mistake of seeing each and every new medium that opens up as 'just another channel'. That’s true to an extent. But only partially so.

At the risk of sounding moderately pretentious, they are also an experience: they involve individuals to a greater or lesser degree. A wholly recent phenomenon is the ‘always on’ PC… with one or more social sites always on at the bottom of the screen.

The key to understanding these new networks is to understand that they are only apparently public spaces. Anyone and everyone can enter: but to the individuals who are part of any community at any point in time, they are private places.

My partner does this with Facebook: at almost any hour of the working day, she may be 'poked', messaged or otherwise contacted by a friend – and then lured sideways into social chat.

In SL, the degree of involvement is even higher. Some people describe it as like an evolving story in which you play a part: for some, the degree of fantasy is even greater. When a vampire turns up on your doorstep, do not offer him garlic or joke about the undead. For that individual, at that time, they are a vampire: though even vampires need information about the latest model of your product.

If that degree of playful fantasy makes you squirm with embarrassment – then maybe you should not ever try to devise campaigns for Second Life.

More generally, the key to understanding these new networks is to understand that they are only apparently public spaces. Anyone and everyone can enter: but to the individuals who are part of any community at any point in time, they are private places. When you enter into them, you do so as a guest within an extension of their own home – and because interaction can be so intimate, you must understand very well what is acceptable behaviour, what not.

This all begins to sound a little like the argument for permission marketing. It is. But it is so much more, besides. For more and more individuals, social networks are seriously private places that just happen to have a door that opens on to the outer world. Go through it if you must. Do so with respect.

John Ozimek has nearly a quarter of a century of experience working with data, applying his insights on behalf of clients, through writing, through consulting, and as editor of the Journal of Database Management, of which he is editor.

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