Five Rules For Bringing Your Real-Life Business Into Second Life

Technology Staff Editor
Posted by

Second Life is one of the most controversial technologies to hit the Internet. Praised last year as a platform that would turn the net upside down, this year it's being dismissed as an overhyped fraud and a waste of time and money. The truth is somewhere in between last year's hype and this year's backlash. Second Life is revolutionary, but the revolution will take a few years to play out. For now, the virtual world is rough around the edges, and at times very difficult to use. Nonetheless, you can get a lot out of bringing your real life business into Second Life. You can use Second Life for effective marketing, building relationships with customers and partners, and creating business value. Here's how.
1. Do Like Captain Picard Said: Engage

InformationWeek has been doing business in Second Life for seven months. Our sister publication, Dr. Dobb's Journal, has been doing business in Second Life since October. And we've spent a lot of time talking to the business leaders of Second Life. One thing we've learned: When doing business in Second Life, you can't just lecture people with your marketing message. You have to connect with them. Engage.
(click image for larger view)Cisco Systems has a big presence in Second Life, including a recent forum on mobility solutions.view the image gallery
"If you want to avoid people, get on the World Wide Web. That's solitary," said Christian Renaud, chief architect of networked virtual environments for Cisco, who heads up that company's virtual worlds strategy. "If you want to interact with people, go into Second Life." Cisco Systems has festooned its in-world campus with meeting rooms and areas where its user groups can get together. The real value of Second Life for Cisco is the opportunity for spontaneous customer interaction, Renaud said. "It's like a birds-of-a-feather session that goes on 'round the clock," he said. Cisco has 650 employee avatars registered in Second Life and six locations (known in Second Life jargon as "islands" or "sims"), four of which are open to the public. The company sponsors events once a week on average. When Cisco launched in Second Life last December, it built a lot of static displays where people could download content and learn about its products. But it found the displays just weren't attractive to residents, and so it tore the displays down and rebuilt, focusing instead on meeting rooms and coffee shops. "What we did was put in a lot more areas for people to sit and talk with each other," Renaud said. "We put in an area to do job interviews. We went from one to three amphitheaters, because we had so many meetings-and-greetings going on."

2. Add Value To Second Life's Communities

Businesses succeed in Second Life when they hold events and drive traffic to their Second Life efforts. "We've been saying all along that if you build it, they won't necessarily come," said June Peoples, executive vice president and senior producer for Infinite Vision Media. "What you really want to do is build community in Second Life -- not just build a monument to your brand or the company."
(click image for larger view)Kurt Vonnegut gave an interview in Second Life shortly before his death.view the image gallery
Infinite Vision Media, an interactive marketing and new media agency based in Massachusetts, has followed its own advice -- it has put together some of the most popular locations and events in Second Life. These include a location for the Weather Channel (where Second Life residents can simulate outdoor play, including surfing, bicycling, skiing, and parasailing), a concert by Suzanne Vega, Kurt Vonnegut's last interview before his death last April, and a fund-raising event for the American Cancer Society. Another agency, Campfire, developed one of the most popular areas in Second Life for Pontiac. Campfire solicited input from car enthusiasts already in Second Life before building the area, called Motorati. Rather than using Motorati as a platform to try to force-feed users a marketing message, Campfire gave away server space -- known in Second Life jargon as "land" -- to people with plans to use the land for attractive, automotive-oriented sites and activities. That way, Pontiac could bring in partners who built a bumper-car area, a nightclub with a parking-lot theme, and an area called for women car enthusiasts. Second Life marketing is different from traditional media and the Web, said Michael Monello, a partner at Campfire. In traditional media and the Web, agencies talk about "pushing messages" out to the audience, he said. "But Second Life really is a new mindset. It's very community focused. You have to go in and say, 'What can we add to the community?' "
3. Don't Believe The Backlash

We in the business press love to build up our idols, and then smash them to the ground. We find some new thing, praise it wildly, create exaggerated expectations for how useful or popular it'll be, and then turn vicious when the new thing fails to live up to those expectations. Second Life is currently on the downward side of that cycle. Time Magazine named Second Life one of the five worst Web sites in July.
(click image for larger view)Motorati Island, sponsored by Pontiac, is an area in Second Life for car enthusiasts.view the image gallery
It was different last year. In spring of 2006, BusinessWeek ran a glowing cover story on Second Life, saying Second Life could evolve to challenge the Web and Microsoft Windows. Wired Magazine played both sides. In October, 2006, it ran a Second Life travel guide, declaring, "Second Life is a world of endless reinvention where you can change your shape, your sex, even your species as easily as you might slip into a pair of shoes back home." But by July, 2007, Wired had done a full turnaround, running an article entitled, "How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions On A Deserted Second Life," with a follow-up blog post from Wired editor-in-chief Chris Anderson titled "Why I Gave Up On Second Life". And yet, despite the hype, backlash, and undeniable problems, there is a "there" there. Half-a-million people use Second Life regularly. That's a population the size of a small city -- somewhere between the size of Albuquerque and Tucson, and bigger than Atlanta or New Orleans. Moreover, the number of active users has doubled in just six months. Don't think of Second Life as a mass-market medium for a global campaign. Think of it as a collection of a half-million potential customers and influencers. Moreover, these are valuable customers: They have the money to spend on high-end computers, and high-speed Internet connections, as well as free time needed to partake of Second Life. And many of them are software developers and IT managers, a lesson not lost on big companies like IBM and Cisco Systems, which are among the companies that have been successful in Second Life.

4. Be Smart About Keeping Out Trouble-Makers

People who write about Second Life tend to concentrate on the sexual activity and wild behavior that can be found there. We did it ourselves in InformationWeek. Forbes quoted David Churbuck, Web-marketing vice president for computer maker Lenovo, saying the only activity in Second Life is cybersex. "There is nothing to do in Second Life except, pardon my bluntness, try to get laid," he told Forbes. That's a common belief. Likewise, some of Second Life's users are hostile to real-world businesses, and will do what they can to vandalize commercial interests in SL. Vandals, known as "griefers" in Second Life jargon, attacked Toyota's area in Second Life, as well as Presidential candidate John Edwards's Second Life headquarters. And in a famous incident, griefers sent flying penises to attack a press conference featuring "Anshe Chung," the avatar of Ailin Graef, a Chinese-German developer who works in Second Life and other virtual worlds. These incidents have given Second Life the reputation of being a wasteland of freaks and perverts. But they are overblown. Sexually-oriented areas make up less than 18% of the land in Second Life, according to an interview with CEO Philip Rosedale. They're there -- strip clubs and orgy areas are the most popular parts of Second Life. But you have to seek them out. Throughout most of the grid, behavior is PG-rated at its raciest. The people interested in sex mostly keep to themselves. And, as for griefers, they can be guarded against by easy-to-use access controls on your land. Many incidents of griefing in Second Life are caused by developers getting sloppy about security, and then blaming Second Life for the lapses, rather than themselves. Moreover, griefing incidents are relatively rare. I've spent a couple of hours a day on Second Life since late January, and only seen a few griefing incidents, the overwhelming majority of which were over in a minute or two. "When our clients ask about that, we tell our clients that Second Life is part of the Web, and anything you can find on the Web you're going to find in Second Life," Infinite Vision Media's June Peoples said. The presence of sex and griefers in Second Life is no reason for real-life companies to distance themselves from the service. "Look at the company you keep in Second Life: IBM is there, Fidelity is there, General Electric is there, big, established companies are there," Peoples said. Companies can distance themselves from inappropriate behavior in Second Life by taking a leadership position in their own area, and setting a civilized and civil tone. They can keep their distance from areas where inappropriate behavior is rampant. And they have to be smart, Peoples said. She said one of her agency's clients wanted to post a sign in their area saying clothing had to be worn at all times. "We had to tell them that this was the surest way to get people to take their clothes off," she said. "You have to understand the elements of the community, the contrarian mindset." InformationWeek has been running discussion groups in Second Life twice a week since February. Every few weeks, we get a disruptive person wandering through. We eject them as soon as their malicious intent is obvious, and move on with the discussion without mussing our hair. Only once did we have a serious incident of griefing -- and even that lasted only a half-hour.

5. Think Of Second Life As Beta Technology

Officially, Second Life has been out of beta for four years. But that's just the official story, put forward by Linden Lab, the developers and operators of Second Life. In reality, Second Life still has all the characteristics of beta software. It's prone to crashes and mysterious, persistent bugs. The client software is updated a couple of times each month. The service has been subject to particularly frequent outages for the past several weeks. For example, Second Life was down more often than it was up on August 7-8, which Linden Lab blamed on networking problems. Prior to that, the service was subject to frequent outages and bugs the weekend of July 28-29, when outages marred the Relay for Life, a charity event for cancer research that spanned the entire grid.
(click image for larger view)InformationWeek and our sister publication, Dr. Dobb's Journal, host regular discussion groups in Second Life.view the image gallery
Moreover, Second Life is still a niche activity. The virtual world's home page keeps a prominent, running tally of the number of people who've signed up for the service, known as "residents." Second Life boasted 8.7 million residents on August 9, 2007. But those are just the number of accounts created in the four-year history of the service -- many of those people tried the service for a few minutes, decided it wasn't for them, and never came back. Some 985,000 people logged in to Second Life in the 30 days preceding August 9. Linden Lab says 495,000 "active users" 114 million people visited MySpace in June -- a figure which makes Second Life usage look like an insignificant speck. Technology limitations are another indication that Second Life isn't quite finished yet. For example, limitations on the Second Life servers prevent more than about 70 people from attending most events (although there are workarounds that can increase attendance to a couple of hundred people). And there are technology limitations on the clients, too. Second Life requires a current computer; users with PCs more than two years old will be unable to access it. It requires that users download and install client software, which many users are reluctant to do. The user interface is confusing. It is buggier than a mattress in a two-dollar hotel -- anytime you log in, there's only a 50-50 chance that things will work right. All of that limits Second Life's attractiveness to most users. My colleague John Jainschigg, who heads up the Second Life effort at Dr. Dobb's Journal, says that using Second Life is a lot like using the Web in 1993-94: Buggy, slow, and lacking in features. But we could all see the potential. Likewise, in 14 or so years, we'll all sit back, share a pint, and reminisce about how clumsy and awkward Second Life was back in the faraway year of 2007. (We'll share that pint in a virtual pub, of course.) "Virtual worlds are now the worst they'll ever be," Campfire's Monello said. "The fact that so many people are willing to engage with them, despite the problems, demonstrates how powerful they are."

Second Life saw a lot of hype in 2006, and now it's getting the backlash. The truth is somewhere in the middle: It's still got a long way to go before it becomes mainstream, but the service can provide a great deal of value for real-life businesses by giving them an opportunity to engage as equals with customers, suppliers, and business partners. Companies including Cisco, Nissan, Starwood, and Showtime, have successfully used Second Life for marketing and communications, by using the virtual world as a tool for engaging with residents. Give it a try. Your Second Life is waiting for you.


Become a member to take advantage of more features, like commenting and voting.

Jobs to Watch