The Second Life tidal wave has finally crossed the Atlantic and is leaping on European shores. By and large, communication professionals are perplexed about whether they should surf the hype or not.
But, to their credit, they recognize a "PR opportunity" when they see one: Over the last six months, media coverage related to Second Life (SL) increased nearly 150%1 while SL blog mentions increased 260%.2
But how long will the Second-Life media frenzy last? And if not for PR, what is the value of investing time and money with avatars when marketing budgets are under renewed pressure to deliver real returns from real consumers?
While a reality check is overdue, I would argue that there is more than meets the eye in SL, and there is genuine value to be extracted for brands that are willing to learn the dynamics of the "metaverse" and play by its rules.
Second Life is a land of plenty, not of many
There are over 2.9 million registered users in SL,3 but most reports talk of about 300,000 active users; and it is estimated that concurrent users are only around 20,000.4
Marketers are interested in knowing their audience. Reliable estimates on SL demographics are hard to come by, but it is thought that 25-45% of users come from outside the US, mostly from Canada, the UK, Australia, and Western Europe.5
SL is developing quickly outside North America, and local European enclaves such as a virtual Dublin or Parioli, a replica of a Roman street, are flourishing. SL users' median age is 32, with an equal gender split.6
Residents are marketing-savvy and patriotic
Second Life residents have been busy shaping their "little" world since 2003, but big corporations discovered this vast, untouched land only last year and decided to plant their flags on it.
Some think that Second Life could turn into another ad-funded MySpace. I wouldn't bet on that. The flood of announcements about companies being the first "fill in the blank" in SL has triggered a growing backlash from residents against brands they perceive are invading their turf.7 In addition, it is fair to say that the PR value of setting up a presence in SL diminishes over time.
When corporations occupy virtual land, they often go unnoticed. The most popular places in SL are grassroots and resident-run (mostly in the casinos/nightclubs/adult-entertainment arena...). None of the corporate outposts is achieving decent traffic in comparison. According to New World Notes, the only corporate venue that gets decent traffic is Thomson, which offers educational content—i.e., something of value.8 A lesson to all?
The right rewards beckon companies with the right expectations
Despite the hype, SL is growing fast. And it is not alone: World of Warcraft passed 8 million players in January9 and the BBC is launching its own virtual world for children.10
Consumers are moving away from watching TV and reading magazines and moving into places where they can be their own director and actor. If consumers are spending more time in virtual worlds, it makes sense for their favorite brands to follow them in their virtual life.
Toyota, Pontiac, American Apparel, Starwood Hotels are among those already established. Philips, ABN Amro and AOL have made announcements for 2007. Even the French Socialist Party has set up an outpost in SL. (Anecdotally: It is the only place where I saw avatars smoking...)
To set expectations right, buying an island in SL or commissioning an avatar of your CEO will not terraform your brand into an epitome of coolness. The value is not in being present but in being active.
Most companies in SL think about their presence from an advertising standpoint: that is, a place for people to "experience the brand." A visitor to such experiential venues (think agencies' virtual offices or trendy company showrooms) will quickly notice, more often than less, that these places are devoid of any life forms.
SL is a platform for interaction, and if there is no one to interact with the fun of wandering up and down designer glass stairways quickly wanes. Why stay or come back? Think about sustaining your investment: Spend less in building a fancy shop and more in manning the shop floor!
Think co-creative marketing and immersive learning, not clickable billboards
There are countless creative opportunities to promote your brand in SL besides virtual billboards and showrooms. The only constraints are of the platform itself. Talking of which, it is worth mentioning that when more than 40 people/avatars are confined in one place, SL slows down considerably. When organizing events, it is therefore advised to prioritize quality over quantity, as the inability to achieve the latter is seriously detrimental to the former.
Technology blog TechCrunch has another useful insight: holding SL only media announcements irritates time-poor and technology-challenged journalists11 (who often write about Second Life from their experience watching the corporate video on the Web site...)
SL residents like to create. Unless they are provided with tools to contribute to the "brand experience," they will treat your efforts the way you treat an ad poster: pretty to look at once, and nothing more.
Spending time with SL natives and enrolling them to develop your SL footprint will increase the chance of successfully blending in. For example, you could launch a competition for SL residents to design your building or hire brand supporters to engage with visitors. If you are stuck for ideas, just ask the natives. Could you sponsor local fashion designers or inviting a SL virtual car designer to your real design studio? How about limited digital versions of your products offered or sold underground to trendsetters to create some buzz? Or publishing a guide to the coolest venues?
The whole of SL is user-generated, the very same trend driven by hard-to-reach Gen Y and Gen X consumers. What better place to gather firsthand consumer insights or indulge in a bit of consumer ethnography? Your SL venue could be a perfect way to train your marketing staff across the world on social media and consumer trends and to conduct workshops—providing you with an opportunity to practice what you teach and to reduce your company's carbon emissions.
By engaging with the virtual community and offering something of value, you will turn every interaction into a genuine understanding of what makes consumers want to create and converse. This is happening now, in virtual worlds, in MySpace or in YouTube.
* * *
Stepping in Second Life is not about PR or showering avatars with ads. It provides an opportunity to understand the mindset of today's connected consumers, turning your investment in Second Life into a real competitive advantage in First Life—and delivering real dollar returns on your marketing investment.
1 Factiva. Percentage increase comparisons between months of August 2006 and January 2007.
2 Blogpulse. Keyword mentions "Second Life" over last six months as of 25th of January 2007.
3 http://secondlife.com/ as of 25th of January 2007.
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