What Brands And Startups Can Learn From Second Life

I guess I was called a “Second Life booster” back in the day -- and guess what, I was OK with that. I still am. As an early adopter (professionally) in the virtual world of Second Life, I witnessed firsthand the highs and lows; how the press initially went gaga over it, and then turned their back, to the point of making it their personal vindictive mission to destroy evidence of any self-created hype.

Perhaps my former company’s island of crayonville was a utopian oasis that existed in the eye of the storm. Perhaps our “Virtual Thirst” foray for our client, Coca-Cola, was the exception to the norm, since the brand did not (like many others in the early days of Second Life) get pelted with flying penises for its troubles.

In many respects, we were witnessing a mini-bubble being artificially pumped up and then burst in spectacular fashion. And all the while, real people were making real money -- admittedly, doing unreal things.



Virtual worlds, gaming environments, augmented reality, avatars and 3D simulation should not be alien terms to you. It should not come as a surprise that these items once coexisted in perfect harmony with each other, along with red dragons and drag queens. What might surprise you is my assertion that brands were to blame for the demise of Second Life.

Can you imagine if Christopher Columbus had looked out his telescope at the “New World” only to see angry, strange-looking people with painted faces and ornate head dressings waving native weapons -- and subsequently turned around to head back to Europe?

Sound familiar? It should be, because it’s the same scenario that happened in Second Life. And I hope it doesn’t happen again with respect to collaborating with startups.

These days, brands have become enamored with the next bright and shiny object, namely conducting tests or experiments with startups. Only startups aren’t some passing fad, gimmick, flavor of the month or test tube guinea pig. Collectively, they represent value propositions or utilities that disrupt norms, challenge conventions and move markets. Only they won’t get to realize their vision -- their proof of concept -- if brands continue to hold them at arm’s length, dispatching their agency minions to negotiate the impossible “big ideas at scale.”

Innovative and unprecedented executions are absolutely doable. It falls apart when brands turn away because the reach isn’t there -- or, put differently, they can’t measure or compare these “startlings” to incumbent blunt instruments like TV, radio, print or even online.

My message to brands is very simple: don’t be turned off startups’ lack of reach. In fact, this should turn you on! You’re dealing with the most fertile real estate, untouched and unspoiled by the “masses” (even your competitors). You have the incredible opportunity to help them achieve their path to reach with your brand dollars, talent, resources and media.

You have the unique chance to join forces with them at the earliest possible stage to co-create and own that big idea.

And, irony of ironies, you have Second Life to thank.

“You’re welcome!” – Divo Dapto

7 comments about "What Brands And Startups Can Learn From Second Life".
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  1. Rob Schmults from Intent Media, November 29, 2012 at 11:17 a.m.

    Wasn't the problem that there wasn't a way for the brands to actually generate value? I'm not a hater: we went through the exact same cycle with Worlds Inc. a few years before Second Life. We got some big brands like Sony to come in and experiment and pay for the privilege. But we weren't able to generate any value for their effort. Rather than blaming the brands, I blame us. We didn't come up with anything better than advertising as a metaphor. Making it 3D and multi-user didn't in and of itself create business value for the brands and therefore didn't allow us to capture any for ourselves. The model may yet be invented, but it is as incumbent on entrepreneurs to understand how they create economic value as it is on their prospects to be smart about how they capture that value. Definitely not arguing against the macro point though. Viva experimentation!

  2. Joseph Jaffe from Alpha Collective, November 29, 2012 at 11:30 a.m.

    @Rob - On the micro point as per your comment, my argument is that brands didn't have the patience, staying power or perseverance to stay the course. Even back then, Second Life was what I called a "reach generator" i.e. one could package the video / interactions and extend / amplify quite beautifully via YouTube for example (see our link to the crayonville video and Virtual Thirst merchandising for examples). The second point (the main one) is that brands could (and should) have figured it out themselves...innovate from the front versus lament/complain about the "lack of".

  3. Mike Mcgrath from RealXstream PTY LTD, November 29, 2012 at 10 p.m.

    Great article. Jaffe, expect an email follow up in your inbox.

    "brands don’t be turned off startups’ lack of reach. In fact, this should turn you on"! Totally agree. Brands have to opportunity to act as angels / VCs / incubators for media startups and if they find the right fit then brands ca almost guarantee ROI either as investors or advertisers...

  4. Jacob S. from GSD&M, December 14, 2012 at 1:24 a.m.

    Didn't you also pull out of Second life? Slightly hypocritical. Crayonville island (no longer in existence, by the way) was not an oasis - it was always totally empty. Not a crayonite to be seen - and I don't think avoiding flying penises is much of a success criteria for your halfhearted Coke effort. And here's the thing - brands didn't look through a telescope and turn round - they piled in with thousands of dollars. Per Rob's point - their advisers (Crayon included) couldn't find a way of generating value for them. Early adopters did get some PR hype out of it, and maybe the odd YouTube view ... 16,000 for Virtual thirst for example - but for what dollar outlay?

    So does Evol8tion have a Second Life presence?

  5. Joseph Jaffe from Alpha Collective, December 14, 2012 at 6:44 a.m.

    @Jacob - We never pulled out of Second Life. When crayon sold, crayonville went with it (incl. all IP such as domains, e-mail logos etc) And if I recall correctly, GSD&M (your agency) invested quite heavily in Second Life as should ask Duff or Marianne about your experiences (investment, learnings, earned media etc) I do think you're missing the point of my piece on so many levels, but since you want to keep focusing on Second Life itself: yes, brands did invest heavily short term in Second Life (but this was still a blip compared to their digital and ultimately integrated/paid/traditional buys). Secondly, Second Life wasn't (then) a reach play...but it *could* have been with the right about of sustained investment over long enough time. That was the point of the article: patience, staying power, perseverance and leadership (versus abandoning ship when the media turned). The third point is that Second Life was a very fertile proving ground for innovation/early learning from virtual worlds. We (crayon, Coke) learned a ton. In any event, it is interesting that SL can still generate so much emotional, so many years on. How many platforms (existing, defunct) can say that? Evol8tion doesn't have a SL presence. We're not a digital agency, but we are bullish on augmented reality/virtual reality. If you have any additional feedback, please feel free to send me an e-mail offline.

  6. Jacob S. from GSD&M, December 26, 2012 at 3 a.m.

    So crayonville was obviously not deemed worth continuing? Not much of a testament. I think your call for perseverance is hypocritical when crayon itself (and by implication, you) gave up on Second Life at the same time all the other brands/ agencies did.

  7. Joseph Jaffe from Alpha Collective, December 26, 2012 at 9:20 a.m.

    @Jacob - crayonville continued and was handed over to the company that acquired crayon. The media and brands "gave up" on Second Life in 2007. We continued our presence through 2009, although admittedly by 2009, it was just paying the monthly rent for the most part. Persevering is one thing, but when you become Don Quixote or Captain Ahab, that's another thing altogether. Again, the article is really focusing on a period, where brands and agencies could have made the difference. It was a make or break period, and they cut bait when the tide turned. As I mentioned, I'm happy to jump on the phone and chat to you about this. just send me your details via e-mail or twitter.

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