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Avoid the fate of a virtual ghost town

Steve Mulder and Rebecca Tapley
Avoid the fate of a virtual ghost town Steve Mulder and Rebecca Tapley

At the beginning of 2007, Second Life was the newest internet bandwagon. The media sang promises of an immersive new marketing channel that would generate buzz -- and customers -- quickly. Major brands leaped onboard and created islands in this 3D virtual world, buoyed by high hopes and expectations.  

For most companies, this strategy didn't work. The majority of big-brand virtual islands became ghost towns, with people rarely wandering by or staying long. Success stories with clearly measurable ROI have been few and far between. What went wrong?

Are virtual worlds campaigns pointless, overly hyped venues for marketing? Or, are companies just not using the right formula for success? Join us for a whirlwind tour of how major brands are using Second Life, what's working and what's not and how to be most effective in this emerging virtual landscape.

Rebecca Tapley is a consultant, builder and real estate developer in Second Life. She co-authored this article. 

Empty brochureware
Most companies rushing to Second Life came in hearing the mantra, "If you build it, they will come." They read the media coverage, glimpsed the crazy virtual architecture and saw easy rewards. Build something "cool," add branding and information about product or service offerings and then sit back and wait for the flood of visiting avatars. But when traffic was light and PR buzz faded quickly, marketers began to realize that simply creating an island full of brochureware wasn't going to work. If their Second Life presence didn't offer anything useful, no one would come.

It's easy to find examples of brochureware destinations in Second Life. A visit to Comcast's island reveals very little information about Comcast's offerings, but strangely you can try out a jetski or jetpack or race your friends on a tube-like track. NBC recreated New York City streets, and you can dance in a virtual Peacock Room, but the long-lasting value to consumers is unclear. Kraft partnered with Phil's Supermarket to supply virtual products; clicking on a box of crackers reveals ingredients and nutritional information -- not exactly an engaging experience for avatars that don't need food.

Traffic is the only metric provided by Second Life to measure public interest, so some brands focus on trying to boost traffic numbers. On Ben & Jerry's island, users can play a game hunting for "Meadow Muffins"; unfortunately, the implied cow droppings don't go too well with the ice cream. On the other hand, auto manufacturers such as Mercedes-Benz and Nissan offer free test drives and freebies -- objects that visitors can buy for little or no game money and take with them. T-Online, the largest ISP in Germany, actually pays people to hang around (called "camping" in Second Life). This drives up T-Online's traffic stats but doesn't promote its services or create loyal customers. Surely there must be a better way.

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Fulfill real-life needs
Traditionally, marketers rely on events and campaigns to attract attention, and these techniques can work in Second Life as well. Sun and Intel regularly host virtual seminars for customers and developers. Consumer brands such as Sony BMG Music have hosted celebrity performances to draw visitors, with mixed success.

The American Cancer Society has been more successful with virtual events, primarily because its virtual support groups and Relay for Life fundraiser fulfill real-life needs. NPR has also grown a loyal community in Second Life for its weekly "Science Friday" shows. Yet, there is a primary challenge for events in a built-in limitation: Only 40 avatars can be in the same place at the same time.

In addition, media-based campaigns are on the rise in Second Life. After "CSI: NY" aired an episode involving Second Life, CBS launched an in-world game encouraging viewers to look for clues and use a virtual crime lab. Similarly, the film "I Am Legend" is being marketed with a Second Life game that enables users to run around New York streets shooting zombies. Second Life is an obvious fit for creating environments that immerse users in fictional worlds. But it's unclear whether these efforts lead to long-term mindshare and brand loyalty when users leave the game.

Ecommerce vs. extended customer service
Some brands are trying to make Second Life a successful environment for real-world transactions. For example, Bantam Dell Books has a store full of clickable books that open a web browser where you can buy the real thing. Life2Life, an Amazon-powered store, enables SL users to search Amazon's catalog and view the results as books floating in mid-air. Clicking through to Amazon's site moves everything to Amazon's cart. And Dell's virtual island enables would-be customers to sit at a desk and click options to configure a PC, then visit Dell's site to buy it.

While these experiments are interesting technically, the shopping experience itself has questionable value, since viewing books and PCs in 3D isn't very helpful. It's certainly easier and faster to just visit these companies' websites. Customer service, on the other hand, is ideally matched to a real-time environment. Best Buy offers live tech support on its Geek Squad island; so does IBM, if you rent its meeting space. Even Linden Labs, the maker of Second Life, has expanded its concierge service "in-world" so you can troubleshoot your virtual experience as it's happening.

Nonetheless, the viability of real-world ecommerce and customer service in Second Life is unclear. Some retailers such as American Apparel have realized this and closed their stores. At this time, there is no way to track or measure customer behavior within a virtual world store -- at least not to the extent that marketers can follow a customer's progress through a website. Some agencies are attempting to gather feedback using surveys and focus groups. But until Second Life and its kin provide companies with user experience data gathered straight from the sources, it will be challenging to draw objective conclusions.

Product development and prototyping
Second Life's open environment makes it an excellent place for prototyping, and some companies are recognizing this potential for internal purposes. For example, Sears' virtual store provides an interactive environment where users create a custom kitchen. Also, architects such as Crescendo Design use Second Life to prototype their designs and encourage potential customers to walk through their portfolio.

When Starwood Hotels started designing a new hotel chain called Aloft, architects and designers used Second Life to develop a 3D prototype. They encouraged users to visit and give feedback, making changes to the building along the way. Based on this iterative process, Starwood is now building real-world hotels that will mirror the in-world prototype. This relationship between user feedback and actual product development shows a lot of promise.

In-world products and services
Because Second Life is a social environment, most success is viral: Residents buy, find or experience something that someone else admires, and word of mouth begins to spread. So how can marketing become viral in Second Life? In a nutshell, companies must provide applicable value within the virtual world.

For example, Reebok identified a match between its real-life customers and Second Life avatars: They all love to create custom looks. So the in-world Reebok store enables visitors to create custom virtual shoes -- just as they can on the Reebok website for real shoes. Coldwell Banker similarly provides something useful that relates to its brand: Visitors can rent or buy virtual land through Coldwell Banker's office.

A few telecom companies have found their own niches. Vivox has placed virtual phone booths in various places within Second Life, where users can make free VoIP calls to real phones. Vodafone's new service, InsideOut, is a heads-up display that enables avatars to send and receive texts and voice calls in and out of Second Life. These services fill real needs and thus expose the brands to potential real-world customers.

Crowne Plaza also extends services into Second Life, in this case by providing free virtual space for anyone to host meetings. Finally, Aveda decided to partner with a respected independent designer in Second Life to create co-branded Aveda hair styles that avatars can buy from the designer's store or from Aveda's location.

The lessons? Companies that find ways to fulfill real-world needs are much more likely to succeed in Second Life. Companies that find ways to enrich a resident's virtual experience will stand out as particularly trend-savvy. Overall, companies that distribute useful products and services are much more likely to go viral and market successfully.

The ROI of Second Life?
There's no quick and easy way to be successful in Second Life. As in many new marketing channels, the ROI of Second Life is far less than a science. The number of active users is relatively small; useful metrics are difficult or impossible to track; the path to success is a moving target and traditional rules of online marketing don't always work in the metaverse.

In Gartner's hype curve, Second Life has passed the Peak of Inflated Expectation and now lingers in the Trough of Disillusionment. This is the additional challenge with finding success in Second Life or any other virtual world: After the initial frenzy is over, realism sets in and the real work begins.

How do you find success in Second Life? Immerse yourself in Second Life culture and identify your customer base. Find an unmet need that supports the philosophy and cachet of your brand. Finally, create dedication both inside and outside Second Life to invest in the long term.

Steve Mulder is director of emerging interactions at Molecular. Read full bio.

Rebecca Tapley is a consultant, builder and real estate developer in Second Life, and the author of "Designing Your Second Life." Read full bio.


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