What Marketers Should Know About Second Life

Brand mavens who choose to use Second Life or other community-driven online worlds as a marketing test lab need to commit more than a budget to derive any real value from the experience--they need to show up "in world," too.

"Marketers are making their decisions based on what they read, not by actively participating," says Greg Verdino, vice president/director of emerging channels for interactive agency Digitas. "They don't know why it's important, but they don't want to look stupid."

A brand's mere physical presence will not yield any consumer insights, Verdino adds. A common error is to establish a beachhead and then never show up at it, he told the audience during a Second Life tour for marketers held last week at MarketingProfs.com.

"It's all about the people and how they interact, and how they spend their time," he says.

Starwood Hotels, for instance, got plenty of media attention for launching "Aloft," a prototype hotel established in Second Life. But visitors to Aloft are left pretty much alone. Walk into the front door of the lobby and unlike a "real world" hotel, no one is there to greet you. Missed opportunity, Verdino says.



"You don't just build something and say, 'Hey, great. It's done!' You have to keep adding to it and maintaining it," he says. "A big mistake marketers make is to invest in building the environment, but not investing for the long-term."

(Once she was able to find the front door of Aloft, this writer's most recent foray into Second Life confirmed the experience Verdino described. In fact, only one of the multiple brand locations and virtual offices visited by LauriePete Wijaya on four separate visits had an active avatar onsite. It was IBM. Donnie Dix answered questions and told her the IBM area is off-limits to those who have no previous invitations. But at least he was there.)

A common misconception, Verdino says, is to look at Second Life as a game when in fact it is a community with its own culture, economy and rules--one where many people show up with no specific objective but to be there. Also, the most important statistic to focus on is active user engagement after 30 days, which hovers at around 250,000, according to Linden Labs, which developed and maintains Second Life.

Most branded experiences are invitation only, Verdino points out, because the technology itself can support only 50 avatars simultaneously in any given SIM before the experience starts to degrade.

Verdino recommends that brand marketers seek out ways to integrate in the day-to-day existence of a typical Second Life visitor, rather than setting up an island that avatars must somehow learn about and hunt down on their own.

Such areas include New Citizens' Plaza, a place where new residents of Second Life tend to congregate.

The other critical reason for participating is to learn the way the indigenous community operates and to play by its rules. For instance, Verdino notes, early automakers who got into Second Life created some stir among the existing business operators by giving away things that in Second Life typically cost "Linden dollars." A way to integrate, he says, is to give Second Lifers ways to earn the currency through experiences with the brand.

Few marketers are using indigenous business ingenuity at managing Second Life search rankings either, he says. For instance, businesses that originated in Second Life typically pay Linden dollars to avatars for "camping" on their premises. The more traffic a so-called SIM gets, the higher it ranks.

Brand marketers could borrow this tactic as well.

Other things marketers should consider:

  • A strong sex trade exists in Second Life. If searches aren't screened for content, the top 20 results will always lead to adult content.

  • Pretty much anything goes, anywhere. "Do I as a brand want to take the risk of a bunch of nude people walking around my SIM while I'm trying to engage consumers?"

  • As the first key entrant in the migration from a 2D web to 3D web, Second Life is more interesting for what it represents than for what it is. "It's great for the geek elite, but your mom is not likely to be in Second Life anytime soon."

    Verdino predicts several emerging worlds may soon overtake Second Life in importance and commercial prominence. One, called Kaneva, is designed for a general audience, and incorporates photo-sharing and other social networking components with an easier navigation structure. The other, Gaia Online, is a Japanese animation site geared to the youth market. Both, he says, make it easier for newcomers who lack experience in virtual environments to find their way around.

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