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Second Life: what value can it add beyond PR and marketing?

Catriona Campbell
Second Life: what value can it add beyond PR and marketing? Catriona Campbell
Over the past 12 months we've witnessed a sensational appetite for brands to experiment in Second Life, with thousands upon thousands of pounds being thrown into designing the most enticing virtual environment imaginable. Adidas, Reebok, Toyota, STA Travel, Vodafone, BMW, to name but a few, have all jumped on the Second Life bandwagon this year, but how well is their investment performing beyond PR and marketing objectives?
This was the hypothesis for one of the best-attended sessions at ad:tech London this year. It was clear from the sell-out attendance, and high-level of audience participation, that Second Life is still a hot topic of conversation. But the fact that the audience was split 50/50 by cynics and proponents of the virtual world (we asked them to raise their hands) shows that the technology is still in the early adopters curve, and needs to evolve more for the masses to take part.
Panellists had agreed to share their strategies, costs and ROI for their virtual worlds projects, as well as their overall experiences. The Web 2.0 movement has to a large extent been driven by the open sharing of information, and in this early adopter phase it's crucial that brands are being honest about their good and bad experiences in online spaces such as Second Life.
Craig Hepburn, Global Webmaster for STA Travel, told the audience how he had invested only tens of thousands of pounds in Second Life (a fraction of what some brands have spent), but by taking a sales-led strategic approach the investment has already paid for itself.
The student travel brand is using Second Life to build a social sales channel around a community of people who enjoy travelling and talking to each other about where they have been. The virtual environment that they've created allows users to place bookings through an avatar (they employ a real person in Second Life to take bookings and give advice) and on the Second Life STA island, which incorporates dorms for students, Lonely Planet travel guides and video footage and posters of recommended destinations.
Because STA Travel is a student brand, the Second Life virtual world works really well for them. Their customers love it, and they are already making money through a multitude of round the world bookings made in Second Life.
The audience was so impressed that a representative from a TV production company suggested that virtual worlds might translate well to an internet TV experience for a brand like STA. This is exactly the kind of question that needed to be asked, as investment in virtual worlds should be not considered as a standalone project or experiment, but rather should be consolidated with the brand's overall sales, marketing and PR objectives.
RBS, the world's fourth largest financial services group, was also on the ad:tech panel, and Sion Mooney, channel development manager in the resourcing division of RBS Group HR attended. He talked exclusively about RBS launching the world's first Virtual Careers Event in Second Life on 16 October. Why? Because beyond the PR value, Second Life is allowing RBS' careers team to connect with people in geographic locations that they would otherwise have had to reach by more traditional and expensive means, such going on the road with a recruitment fair.
In the Second Life environment, candidates can pose questions to the virtual careers advisers, meet current RBS employees and see a mocked-up version of where they would be working, without having to leave their homes. Recruitment is incredibly expensive, and Sion revealed that just one successful hire would more than pay for the whole Second Life project.
The session demonstrated that Second Life is not the money pit that some brands have reportedly experienced, so long as a sales strategy is applied at the early conception phase. While it remains in the early adopters curve it won't work for everyone, but the platform is ripe for brands wishing to attract a youthful and experimental audience.
Catriona Campbell is founder and director of Foviance.

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