SL Evangelisation or How To Extend Linden Lab`s Marketing Efforts

In a previous article, I tried to think a bit about marketing efforts in Second Life.

Recently someone asked me in IM: “so, are you a Linden now?” and I was utterly baffled why they were asking me that. Sure, like perhaps half of the residents, I applied for a job with Linden Lab in November 2004, and did not get an answer, so I guess they don’t require anyone with my skills. I wasn’t expecting much anyway; and, by becoming a member of LL’s staff, it would also mean dropping all my personal projects using SL. In a sense, last year, “becoming a Linden” made much more sense than today.

So, why this sudden and unexpected question? Well, this person knows how much effort I put into promoting Second Life in my country. Last weekend someone presented our team as “the guys that are introducing Second Life in Portugal”. This is hardly true ? first, because Portugal’s oldest SL resident is Eggy Lippmann and has predated our efforts by perhaps 2 years 🙂 And there are many others around, who also predate us in terms of doing projects in SL. And highly likely there are many more about which I haven’t heard anything, just because SL has grown so much lately. Last but not least, it’s also a well-known fact that Linden Lab is not thinking about “internationalisation”, and even if they were, this would probably just mean opening up a second grid on the East Coast and another one in Europe, most likely in the UK or in Germany, where most of the European-based residents come from. It doesn’t make sense to have “partnerships” with entities in any other country ? there is simply no critical mass for those.

What is happening is something quite different. People using SL as a tool are providing RL services using SL ? education and culture being predominant, but there are more. By offering their services, they’re indirectly promoting Second Life as a valid platform for creating 3D virtual worlds. Is this so unusual?

Consider the following example. You open Microsoft’s home page and get a big article on the web site: “James Cooper, an Excel user, is giving a workshop on how to use the SUM() function”. At the appointed time and place, this James Cooper, a Microsoft user, gives the workshop, and is directly promoting himself and his skill in using the SUM() function, but indirectly promoting Microsoft and its applications. So, naturally, James Cooper gets a spot on Microsoft’s web page. He is not a Microsoft employee ? just someone happy to use Excel and tell others about it. But James is certainly presenting “case studies” for Microsoft, doing good PR for them, organising events, evangelising. All these are marketing skills well employed. They don’t cost Microsoft a bit of money ? James is willing to do it just because he loves Excel so much, earns money by using it, and is happy to demonstrate how it works. Microsoft, benevolently, just repays in kindness by getting James a bit of web space and an article here and there, and perhaps a contact for him somewhere. Meanwhile, James exchanges IMs in MSN Messenger with Uncle Bill, who introduces him to other Excel lovers, and together they chat in a room to discuss what they can do to promote Excel even more.

James then organises a meeting of Excel lovers, and together they raise money to create the first “Excel User Conference”. Bill, of course, insists in being a sponsor of the event, and even has Windows Update putting a few messages or adware to gently remind Microsoft’s user base that the first EUC will be held soon, and that they should get in touch with James Cooper to get more info. During the EUC, Bill Gates sits casually on top of a table and talks about a bright new world of Excel users worldwide that will use the SUM() function to create a better, more friendly and more peaceful world. The keynote address by Bill will be streamed to MSN users everywhere in the world. The event is a big success, and new “Excel User Groups” pop into existence all over the place. Microsoft then creates a new website for them, and incorporates into Excel a new menu option called “Live Help” ? when the disk-based help system is not enough, and the online help system doesn’t provide an answer, you’ll be able to go to “Live Help” and instantly send a message via MSN to James Cooper and all the “Excel User Groups” available in the world, and they’ll try to voluntarily help you out. Microsoft encourages this a lot, and Bill is quoted on Wired and the New York Times as bringing a revolutionary, “humane” touch to its application platforms ? encouraging users to talk to users and exchange ideas and helping each other.

Microsoft then launches the “Excel Community Team” ? a group of Microsoft employees that have as their sole function helping out Excel users to get better and better organisation. James Cooper is by now a regular visitor at One Microsoft Way in Redmond, WA. He’s still not an employee, just a regular user, but he definitely meets often with Bill, comes with new requests from Excel users, new ideas on how to put the SUM() function to good use, and regularly encourages Bill to give more support to the “Excel Community Team” and the many, many user groups that exist now all around the world. Bill complies; he knows that James Cooper and all the Excel Users are doing much more for Microsoft and its applications than most of Microsoft’s marketing team. After all, who is the best kind of person to do application evangelising ? the company’s employees or the happy customers? It should be obvious…

By now, I guess most of you are rolling on the floor laughing, since, obviously, James Cooper doesn’t exist, nobody would ever get that kind of attention from Microsoft, and Bill Gates, while certainly a visionary, would never agree to anything like this.

The ones among you who are in Second Life and have understood how Linden Lab works will probably recognize the example. Replace “Excel” by “SL” (it sounds almost the same!), “Microsoft” by “Linden Lab”, and “Bill Gates” by “Philip Rosedale”, and everything does not only make sense, it has happened and is still going on right now.

One year ago or so, residents of Second Life protested to Linden Lab and asked them why they didn’t spend more money on advertising or on doing “the usual stuff other game companies do” ? go to the big games exhibitions, put CDs with Second Life into games magazines, pay for ads there, resell CDs at the big retail stores, etc. There were always embarassed answers. The usual excuse is that “Second Life grows more through word-of-mouth” ? a happy customer brings another 5 with them. As we all know, this is working quite well.

But the next stage is happening at the same time. Linden Lab attends regularly lots of conferences. Just ask Robin or Pathfinder what they’re up to in the next weeks, and you’ll see that they’re very, very busy attending conferences, workshops, seminars (I’d expect Philip to be as busy as well). They’re just not really “games conferences” although they go to a few of those as well. The difference is that they don’t go “alone”. They more than likely will go there with a handful of residents ? who know the Lindens will be there, and will help them to co-promote SL. What kind of residents are those? Well, the ones that are using SL as a platform for their RL work. Naturally, they wish SL to become a successful endeavour, and they promote SL madly. Sometimes this means meeting the Lindens at conferences, by mere chance. “Oh, so you’re a speaker here too?”

Sometimes this also means that people ask us, the residents, why we do all this marketing effort for Linden Lab, if we’re not being paid for it. Consider the following: there are around 500+ “volunteers” working as Greeters, Mentors, Instructors and Live Helpers. They don’t get a single US$ (or L$) in return for spending hours online helping other users. And these are the “organised” groups ? what about the uncountable thousands that help others in exchange of nothing? Why, why, why? There seems to be only one explanation: the more people are happy with SL, the bigger the virtual world will grow, the more consumers of your products/services you’ll have. I mean, my very own first presentations on SL started with “SL, a world with 15,000 users…”. Now I say “SL, a world nearing 100,000 residents…”, but in a year I’ll probably say half a million or so. More people in SL mean more opportunities. We all want more people in SL. And it’s not an altruistic idea, or wishing Philip & The Lindens to become filthy rich ? what we want is that SL grows enough to make many projects possible through reaching a certain “critical mass”. If I have a platform that is used by 50 people (say, OpenCroquet 😉 ) nobody will take it seriously, no matter how well it’s designed. If it’s used by a large user base, well, there must be some reason for that.

Of course, quantity is not the same as quality, but we have both in SL. This is also important for us. We need to attract more good designers, builders, programmers ? but other kinds as well, like teachers, educators, journalists, and all sorts of people that will see SL as the “new medium”: the Metaverse. By “migrating” their current set of tools into Second Life, people are clearly sending a message: “this is the way to go ? this is the future”.

Quoting a resident without his permission: “You’re 15 years into the future.” That may very well be true. But the future has to start somewhere, and “now” that’s all we have: residents promoting Second Life, residents organising the technical support, residents creating external web sites ? residents creating content.

In a sense, the humourous Microsoft analogy is wrong. The ficticious James Cooper should not be “showing off” his skills on the SUM() function, but rather promoting “Exceloid”, something created with Excel that surpasses anything thought to be possible to do with Excel. That would be much more analogous to what happens with Second Life: we grab the tools we’ve been given, and do amazing things with them. And then, by promoting ourselves doing those amazing things, we’re going to indirectly promote Second Life as well, by saying “hey, you can do the same!”

It’s an interesting concept of building a marketing team (and a technical support team as well): get your users to participate. After all, the discussion goes on about what would happen if “Linden Lab would pull the plug”. I may be wrong on this, but every day I feel this hardly won’t happen. You see, Linden Lab, without user-generated content, is nothing; we, the residents, without Linden Lab to support us and encourage us to stay around the grid, we’ll stick with them just because they’re nice 🙂 We know there are alternatives. Highly likely, if SL is not a big success, and if LL’s investors seriously threaten to remove their funding (it may happen, but every day it’s less than likely), what do you think that would happen?

I would bet on the following scenario:

Philip and Cory would ask people to come over in-world to talk about the future of SL. They would explain that they have to shut down the grid and dismiss all employees. And then they would ask for comments and suggestions.

After the initial shock, the first thing that would be asked was: if you got rid of the Liaisons and the email support team, could you hold on for some more months? Philip would consider this. After all, the Liaisons are the biggest part of LL’s employees (although I suspect they’re also the least expensive ones). You can replace them with around 500 volunteers, for free. That would give LL some more maneuvering space to think about solutions.

Then LL could get rid of their marketing team. After all, most of the marketing is by word-of-mouth anyway. Volunteers would quickly fill in the vacant spots. I’m quite sure that not a single user would not be reached if LL did not have a marketing team! And don’t even think about PR ? most PR you get from Second Life does not come from LL, but from its residents. Just take a look at the interviews ? while in 2003 it was all about Philip, nowadays it’s all about the residents. So, no problem here.

Next comes the development team. We have around 5,000+ seasoned and experienced programmers, who, sincerely, would simply drool over the opportunity to improve the code and fix all the bugs in no time. I mean, not even Microsoft Office has that many programmers to fix its bugs 🙂 So this would mean that the development team could be scratched off LL’s payroll easily, and we would still get improvements, new features, and bug fixing. Probably Andrew and Cory could just stay around to do a final commit on the contributed code, and that’s it. Or better still ? Second Life could get a hand by Mitch Kapor and be “integrated” into the Mozilla Foundation, who has a more than enough workforce to support an ongoing project management effort on Second Life.

Last but not least, the Grid. Well, with an open source solution on the server, the grid does not really need to stay in its current co-location facility. People would simply add simulation servers from wherever they wished ? at their universities, at their own expenses in some hosting facilities, whatever. It would probably be a bit more shaky and unpredicatable, but, ah well, aren’t we residents used to that as well on the current grid? 😀 It would definitely be a very different grid, that’s for sure, and the economy and business model (modelled around land) would certainly be very different.

So, what does this all mean? From the day that Philip would announce “the end of Linden Lab” to the day that a Metaverse based on the Second Life platform would be able to run by itself, only a few months would pass. Yes, I’m sure many would shake their hands and leave forever and go back to There or try IMVU or whatever will be launched as a “social MMOG” in the next few years. But a “core team” ? the ones using Second Life as their platform of choice ? would never abandon Second Life. They would struggle to set it up by themselves and keep it going, just because they love it so much, and need it for their own projects to succeed as well. We have a great example on a very similar situation ? Netscape and its successor, Mozilla. Nothing was lost, and these days, Mozilla and its derivatives are still around, still growing like crazy, still being incorporated into other technologies (like inside Second Life itself!). A project never dies if there is enough critical mass, and I think that SL has critical mass already, or will very soon have it.

This also means that the self-proclaimed “SL evangelisers” are not betting on a dead horse. Rather the contrary ? they’re actively revitalizing the platform, pushing it well beyond its current amount of quirks and bugs (unimportant in the overall scheme of things), and promoting it in a way that Linden Lab has not imagined. It’s much easier to do so if you have a “company” behind it, of course ? credibility is important ? but it can also be done without a company behind it. Philip will always be around as the “founder of Linden Lab and creator of the Second Life platform”. Even without Linden Lab, he’ll always be available to talk about SL, its model, its original purpose, and how the many people using it pushed it beyond its purpose ? like Marc Andreesen is still doing with Netscape’s successor.

For an optimist like me, SL is here to stay ? in its current incarnation, or any other that may follow it. All that is due to resident’s promotion of SL’s use.

About Gwyneth Llewelyn

I'm just a virtual girl in a virtual world...