Avoid the fate of a virtual ghost town

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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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