Opinion: Second Life and the next wave in customer experience

21st Jan 2009

Second Life and other 3D virtual worlds have often hit the headlines as objects of curiosity, derision and concern. But does it also hold potential for customer relationship management?

By Steven Walden, Beyond Philosophy

Imagine an island off the coast of Britain with a population of 11m people - growing at the rate of at least one million citizens per year - where the first language is English and the vast majority of the population are within the age range 17-30. Would you be interested in marketing to this group? Could you afford not to?

Incredibly, just such an island - or perhaps I should say, group of islands - exists. But not off the coast of Britain of course - in Cyberspace. Its name is Second Life and is just one, although at the moment certainly the leading one, of a myriad of virtual worlds springing into existence developed by their own citizens and a hosting lab; essentially democratic environments continually adapting and changing as its citizens build and develop their own landscapes and create their own communities of interest.

This is the place for companies wanting to catch the next wave of customer experience - namely the virtual experience. The internet has already emerged as a place for active communication and virtual interaction amongst consumers. Think of such familiar sites as Friendsreunited, Youtube and MySpace - all part of a networking mega-trend with the capacity to rapidly spread both positive and negative word of mouth.

Starwood Hotels used Second Life to show off its new hotel chains. Toyota Motor Corporation released a driveable model for its Scion xB. And Adidas sells virtual versions of its a3 Microride shoes.

And the next trend in social networking to capture the imagination will be 3D worlds where you exist as a character of your choice (an avatar) and stroll around a virtual world, communicating to other virtual characters - all real people logging on and interacting; and for the most part for free.

However, like many new ventures that have turned into phenomenons, this current wave is taking time to be absorbed into the broader marketing mainstream. The likes of Second Life have mainly been in the headlines as objects of curiosity, derision or concern more than anything else, but those who dismiss it it are missing the point - today's geek or student is tomorrow's audience.

Furthermore, the use of such 3D technology and virtual communication is highly likely to mash-up with the current internet version 2.0. So rather then think of this as some strange phenomena, detached from the commercial goings on on the internet, it is very much the next extension of it.

To give you just a few examples:

  • Imagine a customer pressing a button on your website that takes them on a virtual tour of your store or other business (maybe even something like a manufacturing plant that is still at the design stage) and allows them to speak to a virtual assistant about financial products or something else entirely.
  • Alternatively if they have an avatar (their virtual selves) already, you could teleport (redirect) them to your site or location on Second Life.
  • How about meeting others at a virtual conference? Or discussion group?
  • Or offering an exciting new site targeted at a specific community of interest or even your own mini Metaverse.

Think about those 100m or so members of flat web pages like MySpace. Soon these will be pushing members towards 3D worlds like Second Life. There is no doubt that this will be a difficult play for some people currently over 45 perhaps to conceptualise but for that generation brought up with video gaming this is all second nature.

And already, several companies have investigated the potential and started to develop virtual landscapes that promote their company. For instance, where you can search and shop in a virtual bookstore linked and integrated into the website. Other examples sourced from Second Life, The Official Guide include:

  • Starwood Hotels, which used Second Life to show off its new hotel chains.
  • Toyota Motor Corporation, which released a driveable model for its Scion xB.
  • Adidas, which sells virtual versions of its a3 Microride shoes.
  • Hipster clothing the American clothing retailer which opened an outlet to sell virtual versions of its clothing
  • Harvard Law School, which offers a course partially on Second Life.
  • The CIA.
  • Duran Duran that have developed a site for playing concerts and showcasing new bands.

As you can see, this is not just an environment for tangibles such as clothing and books but very much for all businesses; as we have seen with the development of banks in Second Life and professional services advisors. Of course the likes of will always be leaders in this area but this is just as good an environment for a utility or financial services provider whether for PR or advice as it is for anyone else.

Companies on Second Life are not using it for just some wild fantasy trip, but are approaching it in much the same way as they have the internet - for word of mouth. Furthermore, as the primary purpose is interaction you are already seeing many specific interest communities develop, an excellent basis for feedback and targeting your messages and online developments as well as obtaining research feedback.

And with land prices quoted as $195 per month for occupying a whole region equivalent to 65,536 square metres (source: Second Life, The Official Guide), your company's presence in the next online social phenomenon could be assured for a moderate sum. And if the Metaverse really does mature and 3D technology merges with the current web environment, we could be seeing a great more firms embracing a Second Life.

Steven Walden is principal consultant and head of research at Beyond Philosophy.


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