Supporting business in Second Life seriously

A view from the Beta Business Park
This article requires a disclaimer. I am by no means a disinterested party, but a heavilly biased one. My own company, Beta Technologies, has officially launching the Beta Business Park on September 15th, 2009. Obviously you will expect me to support the whole concept ๐Ÿ™‚ and not be too skeptical about it.

But I still find it worthwhile to expand a bit on the reason why my company feels this to be important, and how a very long process of maturing an idea, which was validated and corrected by marketing experts and social networking consultants over the years (yes, years!), produced the current result. I hope it might encourage you to rethink about what it means to create a business presence in a virtual world โ€” Second Life or any other โ€” in the years to come.

The first steps

Let’s get back to mid-2006. By then, Second Life was growing like crazy, and all sorts of virtual world wannabees were popping up like mushrooms. The media was excited: Facebook wasn’t yet the huge media-attention-singularity it is today, and there seemed to be a huge gap to fill in terms of technology that bring people together. Virtual worlds were seen as the “missing link”. And even if it wasn’t so, the future in 3D seemed to be quite compelling โ€” it addressed an issue that 2D web pages can’t really convey: the notion of being immersed in an environment with real people.

Yes, we know how the Facebook owners have been painstakingly pushing people to use their real names and real identity and real pictures on their FB profiles โ€” but their motives are not the same. They sell profiling data for advertising, and profiling data from avatars is not seen as important (which is simply neglecting the half-billion US$ economy of digital content sales, but that’s another story; I’m not going to lecture Facebook and Microsoft on what it means to neglect such a market โ€” after all, Microsoft does have a relatively solid presence in Second Life and has experienced it first hand ๐Ÿ™‚ ). The notion of “being immersed” is of little concern to Facebook; asynchronous communications on social websites (with the odd IM thrown in) has established itself as the norm on digital, online spaces, so they’re fine in being the leader of that technology. ๐Ÿ™‚

But in 2006 things changed a bit when it was clear that virtual worlds like Second Life were questioning that approach. Virtual worlds faithfully represent the notion ofย presence inside a 3D space. People are “really there” when they interact with each other and with their environment. Things happen in real time. Virtual worlds are a simile of reality, not an abstraction of reality. This lead to new questions: how can this new paradigm be successfully exploited, and, from a corporate point of view, how can it generate new revenue, either directly or indirectly?

In the “wild years” of 2006/7, there was just one solution that everybody came up with: media splash. With the media eager to write about this “brave new world”, it was easy to see that anything that appealed to the media would have a good success of gathering brand awareness. The idea of corporations sponsoring “games” was not new, and that’s why the first attempts of establishing a virtual presence in Second Life were of a game-y nature: even if they were not strtictly “games” in itself, they were supposed at least to be entertaining, and through entertainment, they thought the media would find it attractive enough to write things about it.

Ironically, with the only virtual world with a huge economy of digital content sales, the existing content designers for SL were scared about what they perceived to be “unfair” competition from the Big Corps, with their unlimited funds to develop cheap content for sale in SL. The irony here is that almost none thought to exploit content creation for sale in SL in 2006/7 (thus showing that the “fears” of the SL content creators were largerly unfounded). To my knowledge, “direct competition” came from American Apparel and Bershka and little else; most virtual presences gave away a very limited selection of freebies, but never seriously “competed” in the content creation business.

It was simply not what they were after. They just wished to have brand awareness. And since the funds for raising brand awareness usually come from the bottomless coffers of their marketing departments, the years of 2006/7 have seen million-US$-virtual presences being built for a while.

Which quickly disappeared after the media lost interest (the journalists are fickle!) and, to a degree, the media, probably with some help of some frustrated CEOs and marketing managers, tried to label Second Life as “worthless” and “soon to be a forgotten technology”.

Nothing could be so far away from the truth. Still, writing an article on “the end of Second Life” is a certain way for a journalist to earn a few US$ from their editors. They can even re-use the same articles over and over again; Second Life, in several cases, has outlived those journalists or the media they wrote for ๐Ÿ™‚

However, it was also clear that brand awareness only worked to a degree. With multi-million budgets to do things in Second Life, the return on investment was low if you just “merely” got a “few thousands” to visit your virtual presence. Now you should understand that corporations do not only invest “millions” in ads and TV spots. They organise a lot of events โ€” where sometimes their audience is “just hundreds” or “thousands” and not “millions”. Usually, a marketing department will be quite happy to do a product launch with just 50 people in the audience, and spend a few dozens of thousands of dollars in it, if they know in advance that those 50 people are either potential clients, partners, opinion makers, journalists, or possibly VIPs that might give interviews to journalists. These kinds of events happen all over the place; this weekend, for instance, I saw that Mercedes Benz promoted a fashion show in Miami for beachwear. What have cars and bikins have to do with each other? Well, the hundreds that attended the show are potential buyers of Mercedes cars ๐Ÿ™‚ And a journalist covering the event for a fashion magazine or fashion network channel will show the big Mercedes logo โ€” free advertising on TV!

So it’s not uncommon โ€” I would say, it’s even more common! โ€” that this “small-scale”, more personal form of advertising, through sponsoring of selected events (or creating their own “product launch” event), is actually more widespread and gets a proper return on investment, in some cases better than when using massive mainstream advertising. That’s why these things are so popular. Targeted marketing usually gets more results for the same amount of money invested, and the number of attendants is less important than the ratio of expected return. Put in other words: if Mercedes invested, say, US$20,000 on a show that attracted a hundred people, but one of them buys a new Mercedes car, that’s a good return that will have covered the costs (any “casual” showing of Mercedes’ logo on the streets โ€” saving the costs of leasing a billboard โ€” or on the TV coverage of the event โ€” saving the costs of a TV ad โ€” is just extra brand awareness for free, which is quite cool). If they have to spend US$20 million to do a TV ad on a specialised channel (one mostly seen by the “A” type of consumers) that might have 100,000 viewers, but none buys a car, it was a bad investment. In terms of brand awareness, the reach might have extended to 100,000 viewers, which is good, at a price of US$200/viewer. But no sales. For the same ratio (US$200/attendant) you might sponsor a much smaller event and get a single sale that would pay for it. Also, it’s far easier to measure direct effectiveness of the result of a small event (imagine you hand out a card that will give you a 1% discount if you buy a car; that way, you know if someone comes with that card to the car stand, it was someone who attended that fashion event) than on the mainstream media (it’s far harder to track down who viewed an ad on TV or on a magazine and came to your stand to buy a car).

Surprisingly, very few companies are exploring that area in Second Life, which is ideal to get in touch with a geographically distributed population (instead of setting up small events on several different cities, you just need to set up a single event in SL, and people from all over the world might come to see what you’re doing). My company developed something like that for a software development company in Florida โ€” you could buy their product via Second Life and get a discount. They made enough sales to keep their virtual presence going for several years, although they weren’t really considering SL as a “major retail channel”, until the financial crisis finally forced them to cut all marketing costs and they had to leave SL โ€” at least temporarily. That’s normal: in real life, sponsoring events like this are made in a specific timeframe, and this is something that SL residents have a huge difficulty to grasp, since on the Web, companies rarely abandon their websites. Once a company is in SL, it is expected that it stays in SL forever, but that’s simply not how the corporate world works. Products have a limited timeframe of existence (just look at fashion, beauty, or TV shows). Their promotion only makes sense during their existence; when the product line comes to an end, its promotion ceases.

On the other hand, Second Life enables quite a different style of interaction โ€” customer feedback, getting in touch with partners and potential clients. It allows for social networking: establishing new business relationships, either with other corporations, possible partners, or potential individual consumers. This is the little explored side of virtual presences in Second Life, but you can see from M Linden’s blog posts that this is pretty much what Linden Lab is now trying to address.

From virtual presence to social networking

After 2007, real life businesses have slowly changed their approach to their virtual presences in Second Life. Perhaps also ironically, and this is of course the way I see it, they have learned from successful, existing Second Life businesses (the hundreds of thousands without a “real” counterpart) and learned what they were doing right.

Listing all the reasons why SL businesses are successful in SL is probably beyond my own skills, but a few things immediately pop up. The largest, most successful SL businesses became great first and foremost because of good networking. They are very good at attracting crowds to their venues and shop there. Since there is no mass media in Second Life (except for classified ads, and even those don’t reach the whole multinational population), attracting potential shoppers is the key to raise awareness for your products and services.

Well, besides camping bots and similar (now illegal) tricks of temporarily raising your ranking on search โ€” which might have a short-term effect of drawing some people to a shop or virtual presence, but people will quickly understand that this strategy is just a gimmick without real interest โ€” the best way to raise awareness is, well, to develop a strategy focused on networking with your customers. On one hand, that means keeping in touch with them constantly: in-world via group notices or Subscribe-o-Matic; sending them gifts and notecards with tips; and off-world with blogs, Twitter and Facebook accounts, eventually forums to discuss your products and services.

On the other hand, it means giving your potential clients a reason for networking together. Word of mouth is the most powerful tool that binds clients and service providers together: social networking reinforces those bonds by keeping them alive. In Second Life, this means having “pretexts” for people to get together and talk about the way they feel about our products and let others know about it. A lot of things can be used as a “pretext”. A special sale would do the trick; giving a party to launch a new product or series is another idea; regularly setting up all sorts of events, no matter how remotely related to your business, simply because it gives your clients the opportunity to meet, to chat among themselves, to forge new contacts, new friendships, and so on. Social networking at its best ๐Ÿ™‚ And it beats any “abstract” web page where you click on links and call people “friends” and “share pictures” with them…

So, some companies have indeed looked at how so many small businesses in Second Life actually promote themselves and their products. And they cannot be all wrong โ€” there are hundreds of thousands of people in SL that all use this model, and all of them have success. And even the ones that haven’t are eagerly trying to do the very same!

Learning from what works

Since M Linden became CEO, Linden Lab has been aggressively pushing for products and solutions for corporate and educational clients, because their new vision shows them that this is the next stage of Second Life.

With 400+ developers listed on their page, 31 of which Gold Solution Partners (and more to come), it’s clear that companies are really coming to SL โ€” but they come with a lower profile, different ambitions, different expectations, and less interest in “media splash”. The question is, what kind of virtual presence are businesses interested in exploring?

We have to clearly separate two types of corporate customers. The majority โ€” but not necessarily the ones most interested in investing! โ€” have done their homework. They started introducing social networking tools as part of their promotional efforts. They set up blogs for their execs (who have LinkedIn or Plaxo Pulse accounts), and have Twitter and Facebook pages for their clients and partners to follow up, and show their video ads on YouTube (instead of placing them on TV). They begin to understand what viral marketing means in the digital era. Coming to Second Life is the next stage. But they might still not understand what Second Life is good for.

Other corporations are still so utterly clueless that they have just skimmed the tech magazines and just know “social networking” is “cool”, but have no clue what to do. Among these are the ones that don’t understand social networking but are willing to learn โ€” quickly! โ€” how to do it right. Many are unwilling to learn, however, and they project their ideas of how it is supposed to work, and try to develop a strategy based on their “gut feeling” of how things work, but, like we all know, this will never lead to successful results: some things really have to be learned and understood to be mastered!

Putting it bluntly, typical popular myths like “build and they will come” will never work. But that’s something you need to experience in Second Life first. The most successful venues are not always the most beautiful ones. The ones that are both beautiful and successfully promoted, however, will have an edge over the ones that are merely well promoted. This is not unexpected: it’s understanding that what really matters are people and not the environment. The environment is just an extra bonus which can multiply the effects of a successful promotion, but it’s not a necessary condition. Now this by all means is not a justification to just do ugly builds and low quality virtual presences: as we have consistently seen in Second Life, given the same promotional success, an aesthetically pleasing are will always attract more people than one that is confusing or just plain ugly. This is the lesson learned by Facebook vs. MySpace โ€” Facebook imposes an aesthetically pleasing environment, while MySpace does not, and although these days both share similar features, it’s clear who is winning the race (some criticise Facebook for their adamant refusal of allowing users to change the web design of their own pages; if Facebook one day allows that to happen, it will be interesting if they’ll go down the same pit than MySpace went. I seriously suspect it would be the case).

So what is a successful promotional strategy? Most businesses (and some academic institutions) actually despise Second Life. They have a mindset that formalises their activity in everything they participate. I cannot reallyย criticise them for that mindset: after all, the notion that companies are grey, boring, but formal, has been until recently the most successful approach to establishing the “seriousness” of a company โ€” and serious companies promote serious business. We used to call this the “bank” mindset, or even the “IBM mindset” (IBM, as you all know, has dropped that culture, and now they prefer to be seen as the cool guys in colourful T-shirts doing techie stuff). It showed a respectful faรงade.

However, the Internet changed all this. Even the most boring company now has a colourful website full of animated links. In fact, if they show a “boring” web page with an aesthetically unpleasing design, they now know that their website will never be seen. Similarly, except for some Stone Age organisations (like so many I know from my country… ๐Ÿ™‚ ), the idea that a corporate web presence should have a “message from the CEO” and a boring mission statement is completely out of touch with reality. Instead, visitors prefer to read casually-written blog entries from the company’s execs, not corporate messages. They require information, not advertising. And they will look for specifications, support and services, not pamphlets or publicity. But most importantly, they’ll come to find out people to interact with โ€” either through a simple chat system with the company’s reps, a contact form, or, of course, a more elaborate (and meaningful!) conversation via Twitter, Facebook, blog comments, or similar asynchronous methods of giving feedback.

Second Life is a child of the Internet, but it also introduces new ideas and concepts that simply have no Web counterpart. If all shop owners in SL, to promote their products, do events that attract people (in search either of a sale discount, or possibly some entertainment provided by a hired performer), why should corporate presences be different? What makes their environment appealing to visitors? Obviously it’s not “pretty graphics” โ€” that only passes along the message, “look, we’re filthy rich and can have the best designed replicas of our RL buildings here for you to see, why don’t you visit us?” The equivalent on the Web was the dreaded era when all corporate presences had PowerPoint presentations pasted on their webpage โ€” or, later, super-cool (but super-heavy) Flash pages. But Google gave us the “clean and simple” era of very readable interfaces that we immediately associate with “Web 2.0” โ€” and, curiously, with getting people together.

Now, the equivalent in Second Life is not necessarily a giant plywood cube in the middle of an otherwise empty sim, with a huge logo, and having the whole corporate crowd with garishly coloured avatars dancing to the sound of rap, 24h/7, around the plywood cube ๐Ÿ™‚ After all, as any good web designer will tell you, creating a “clean and simple” Web design is actually harder to do than simply pasting a PowerPoint presentation. One of the many amusing paradoxes of real life is that it takes a lot more effort to create simple and clean designs than to do a complex one โ€” but, alas, that is another discussion on the nature of aesthetics which is clearly beyond my abilities to understand, much less to explain.

Instead, corporate presences have to be designed to reach out to their potential clients and partners โ€” but not by using artificially created “myths” on what is supposed to work, or what science fiction movies and books tell us what “virtual realities” should look like. The answer is to look at what people do in Second Life, and not what we would wish them to do. A typical example: conservative corporations might be more interested in attracting clients to a formal launch of a new product. But even in real life this trend is slowly losing interest: Steve Jobs gives their audience of fans a show, not really a “product presentation”. You go to assist to Jobs’ keynote speeches because of his magic โ€” you wish to become a part of Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field. The “presentation” has to be engaging and entertaining โ€” in a sense, if you wish, it has to be immersive (in a fantasy world spinned by Jobs and his marketing geniuses). While definitely not every company is confortable about that particular style of presentations, we can slowly see that the notion of “entertaining an audience” of clients and partners is capturing even the most conservative minds. Xerox’s Sophie Vanderbroek, over two years ago, delivered a typical presentation about strategies and vision, which would be usually flagged as “very boring”, by introducing an entertainment aspect โ€” the whole presentation was made with her Second Life avatar (this video was just delivered internally and is thus not available for public viewing; only a general-purpose presentation video is still around in YouTube). I’m sure you can add a whole list of “uncommon” styles of corporate presentations (which might not necessarily mean “an audience sitting in an auditorium with a speaker on a stage”!) that have become increasingly popular.

Why do these work in real life? The artificial barrier between “clients” and “producers of services” is slowly lifted that way. Companies become pro-active in engaging their customers and want to know what they think. It’s unthinkable these days to imagine that you can hide behind your corporate walls and refuse to admit that your clients have a mind of their own; the age for that kind of mentality is long past. Nevertheless, crossing that barrier is hardly an easy task. It can become ridiculous if not done properly. It might be too disturbing to understand what your clients really think about you. In the recent past, corporations relied on very filtered marketing analysis reports to give them a view of what their customers thought, but behind rosy lenses โ€” you’d not really know what they thought, just what the marketing analysts interpreted for you.

The “Web 2.0” approach shatters all barriers, all walls, all illusions: it puts clients directly in touch with the companies. But handling that correctly is never easy, specially if the corporate culture is closed-minded and turned inwards. Traditionally, only marketeers and sales reps got in touch with the general public; they were trained to do so properly. Nowadays, however, clients want to interact with the company at all levels: they wish to talk to developers, to project managers, and ultimately, to blame the CEOs if they dislike a company’s policies. Opening your corporate culture up to embrace the social networking era is not for the faint of heart.

In Second Life, things go even beyond all that. SL businesses have long since crossed the barrier. A shop owner might open a nightclub to promote their services and hire performers to entertain the audience; but the shop owner isn’t staying at a remote location reading marketing metrics and getting reports on visits. She is attending the events she has organised. It’s through her personal list of contacts and groups that the clients are informed of the event. She is the one sending out the invitations, and the first to receive them. She answers questions directly, not through representatives or marketing specialists that spin out a pre-prepared speech for her. Her ability to engage pro-actively her own clients, on one-to-one contact, answering IMs directly, but naturally also having as much fun as her clients are having, is crucial to establish a very personal, and, to a degree, intimate relationship with all her clients. This is something that has long been foreseen by some futurologists of the 1980s or probably even earlier: the day where clients and producers actively collaborate towards creating a marketplace where both participate and give feedback to each other, and the old barriers dividing customers from providers, where the provider says “you’re the consumer; hush and pay for our services; we know what’s best for you”, have totally disappeared. Some experts call these prosumers (a definition which is ambiguous and really not consensual).

Social networking, the new model of reaching out to your clients, is not limited to client-provider relationships. It extends to partners, business relationships โ€” and the media, which, in turn, is quite serious about the Web 2.0 influence. They have changed their sources. Now the journalist doesn’t wait for press releases to appear in their mailboxes; instead, they subscribe to RSS feeds and follow people on Twitter and Facebook, and that’s the way they get new information โ€” they can always ask for more via direct messages, emails, or, well, phone calls. In Second Life, this means that the media is invited to attend to special events just like every other client. There is really no need to do a “product launch” for clients (where the speaker is visually separated, standing on a stage) and a “press conference” for the media. You can throw all together and have a single, entertaining event, where journalists talk to customers who talk to CEOs, to their friends, and to the performers. There is a huge leveling out going on here.

Note that this definitely does not mean that corporations are now at the mercy of the “wisdom of the crowds” or that clients effectively have some sort of democratic participation in the decision processes of the company. That’s also another myth, coming from a more libertarian approach, which, however, like all myths, is simply not true. The company is still an independent entity. Just because it decides to open itself to more input and feedback; just because it’s willing to step down and mingle with their clients (and the media), it doesn’t mean that either are now somehow “part of the company” or have any direct influence in the company’s decisions. This is hardly the point; companies cannot work under a democratic model ๐Ÿ™‚ Instead, they’re subject to the laws of the free market: compete or disappear.

But in the Information Age, what is the best method to compete? Be better informed. And here social networking helps. A decade ago or so, Web-based e-commerce reduced the distance between the producer and the consumer: middlemen could be written off the equation, as more and more companies sold directly to their clients via the Web. This reduced costs dramatically (at the expense of “killing” the middlemen; but as we have seen, the clever middlemen started to add value to their services to continue to stay afloat. eBay and Amazon might be the two best examples of a super-middleman that offers so much added value that, although individual producers might get a slightly higher margin of profits if they sold directly to their clients, they prefer much more to use a middleman, since the cost of replacing it is way higher than the benefits of having a higher margin).

The reverse path โ€” getting the clients way closer to the producer in terms of feedback โ€” has really shined via the emergence of social networking. To correctly place a product in a market, you need to know what people wish and how much they’re willing to pay for it. Traditionally, this was made by market analysis (even if it meant just asking your friends what they would expect to pay for such a service). But now companies can get their feedback directly from the customers. They can see what they tweet about a new product launch. They can see the comments they type on a blog describing a new product. And, in Second Life, they can teleport to a place where the business owner is, and tell them what they think of their products (often very graphically ๐Ÿ™‚ ).

Again, many corporations are scared about that idea. After all, they have laboured in the past under the assumption that they’re isolated from their pestering clients and their insane ideas on what kinds of services they wish. Well, the bad news for these corporations is that the time of isolation has gone with the dawn of the Information Age. If you develop an autistic attitude towards your clients, they will engage in their own complex social networks that will spread the news way faster than the traditional media, and warn all their friends โ€” and friends of friends, and so on, exponentially picking up speed as the messages are spread over the networks โ€” that your attitude is intolerable, and that people should shop elsewhere. Monopolies (real or perceived) might still work under the assumption of isolation, but they’re the last ones able to do so. The common companies are not so lucky; and these days, there aren’t many companies, at least on the western world, that don’t have even the tiniest, bare-bones, informal social networking group, organised by the clients spontaneously, talking about the company’s products โ€” often in public, where everybody (specially the media!) can see what clients think about the company.

The more open-minded corporations have tried to antecipate that: instead of fearing social networks and their bad-mouthing of a corporate culture, they promote the creation of their own, company-sponsored, social networking environments. And here is where Second Life shines. The text-based Web, no matter how creative it can be, has limited varieties of channels for content delivery. You can use text, images, videos โ€” and that’s pretty much what you can do. People interact asynchronously โ€” which, of course, has the advantage that you can censor speech on your own social networking environment, but this will quickly be found out and even more quickly shunned by your clients. In Second Life, however, there is no limit to interaction between people โ€” all it requires is a little imagination, but pretty much everything is possible (given enough budget!), and it all happens in real time, with no opportunities for filtering content. People feel that it’s harder to be dishonest, if you have no opportunity to “edit” your thoughts.

The more traditional way of engaging a community is by replicating existing real life models in Second Life. Orange, IBM, Cisco, and Nokia are fond of promoting in-world discussions, meetings, debates, and talks. That’s a very good starting point, since it’s one of the many solutions that is relatively easy and cheap to implement in Second Life, and it provides the whole range of possible interaction, both in public, as well as in private IMs. It’s a quite adequate adaptation of an existing model โ€” the trade conference โ€” but more flexible, embracing more people, with zero travel costs (thus not limiting the participation to people geographically near the event venue). Make the conferences interesting โ€” or intriguing! โ€” enough, and people will come. Not necessarily to hear what the speakers have to say. Like everybody knows, the real interest in a RL conference is not what the speakers say (you can, these days, always watch a podcast or read a transcript or get their slides for later viewing), but what happens during the breaks. Here is where social interaction occurs, informally, as participants interact with speakers and company reps, as well as among themselves. The real opportunity for expanding business contacts and gathering feedback occurs between sessions; sessions should only be compelling enough to make sure that people will at least attend (thus, again, the importance of having “immersive magic” in a conference, to make sure that you give attendants the opportunity to have an icebreaker for the break chats that will follow).

But Second Life offers so much more. In its rich medium, you can watch a video; have speakers comment the video, either in voice or in text; have the whole audience chatting happily and making running commentaries in public chat, all the time; and, of course, have people IM each other during the whole session. The mix of video/voice/chat allows separate channels of attention to be processed simultaneously; if the video is compelling enough, you’ll not lose your audience there, but they will nevertheless continue to chat and interact among themselves, which is the whole point. Thus, instead of limiting yourself to a few, scattered breaks, people can network efficiently during all the time of the conference.

They are already doing this in real life, too. Most minimally techie conferences have wi-fi installed on the conference rooms. People bring their laptops to the conference. While the speakers are droning relentlessly at the stage, attendants are busy tweeting about what they hear, and sending messages to their friends. They’re engaging in social networking activities during the whole conference, and this is becoming more and more popular. However, it has a huge limitation: you will just keep in touch with the people you already know. To reach out to further contacts, you need to meet them first โ€” probably during the coffee breaks โ€” and add them as “friends” on one of the many social networking services (hoping that at least both of you have accounts on the same one).

Second Life is so much better. All people at the conference are immediately available: if you can see their names, you can IM them. All can be part of a group (to attend an event, for instance, you might enforce the rule that you have to be part of the group first), and that means that at the very least everybody can continue the chat on group chat โ€” or simply do it in public text chat, if the speakers are using voice. But the audience can directly interact with the speakers โ€” in real time. They can ask them questions in IM, and wait until they answer. And after the session’s over, you will have a whole range of new contacts โ€” all you need is their names and add them as friends โ€” without little effort. If most of the conversation was done in text chat, you’ll have transcripts of all that โ€” so it’ll be quite easy to find out who was that clever girl on the third row that asked such a pertinent question that requires a better answer when you have time, or the cool-looking guy that seemed like a potential client/partner. Nothing is ever “forgotten”.

Of course, “conferences” is perhaps the easiest way to interact with Second Life audiences, but that’s just because companies are familiar with them. It’s by all means not the only way to interact. Let’s get back to sponsored events: if a corporation like Mercedes Benz can sponsor a Miami fashion show in real life, why can’t they do the same in Second Life as well?

The difference here is to understand the multiple-layered communication/interaction aspect of Second Life. In a real life sponsored event, interaction occurs before and after the event โ€” be it a fashion show or a music concert. Only a few allow โ€” in a limited way โ€” continuous interaction. Typical examples are things like fund-raising dinners (people at the same table can chat for almost all the time) or art exhibits (except for music concerts, all other art exhibits allow people to mingle and make contacts while the exhibition is open). The rest usually add the main event as a “gimmick” to attract people โ€” clients, partners, media โ€” and use the breaks for interaction.

Second Life, by contrast, allows everything at the same time. While you’re sponsoring a fashion show, you can present a video showing off your products, and point people to URLs with more information โ€” they can see all this and still enjoy the fashion show. During the whole time the show is going on, people will not stop chatting for a single instant. Even better than the conference โ€” where speakers will only have their full attention turned to the audience before or after giving their presentation, but not during the presentation โ€” in this kind of events you can chat all the time (in text โ€” public or private โ€” or in private voice calls). Second Life is this strange environment where, unlike in real life, people go to live music concerts to chat and listen to music at the same time โ€” while in real life it’ll be too loud to chat, of course. And obviously fashion shows and live music performances are just two examples โ€” popular ones, but by no means the only ones that are available. Just browsing through the events list will show the vast variety of events available, and a creative group at the company will probably find out new ones that work well in SL. Contests; races; art exhibits; anything, really, can be turned into a “pretext” for attracting people to engage in social networking activity. While there are “fashions” in SL too โ€” live music continues to be ever so popular, with art exhibits perhaps coming in second place โ€” nothing prevents marketeers to design totally and completely new event models, and attract more people that way due to the uniqueness of the event. As some friends of mine have once remarked, in 2005 I believe, “Second Life is the only place in this planet where we can calmly have a high-brow discussion about philosophy while at the same time we dance in a hard rock club with very loud music” (if my memory doesn’t fail me, the experiment was carried out by our beloved resident anthropologist, Tom Bukowski; my apologies if I’m quoting incorrectly!).

And, increasingly, if not almost exclusively, the majority of events in Second Life are these days promoted by SL businesses. They can’t all be wrong. It’s time that corporations open their eyes and see how SL businesses are so good at engaging in social networking to promote their businesses.

The Beta Business Park launch

Beta Business Park launch โ€” at the B2P Black Sun clubIt definitely takes an open mind to understand this novel approach of engaging your clients, partners, and the media reporters, into a real-time social networking activity, since this so often runs against corporate culture, in spite of the winds of change sweeping across the corporate world.

As said, my company launched their new business product, the Beta Business Park (B2P),ย on September 15th. This was not something quickly planned on the spur of the moment. After so many years in Second Life, it was clear that the major obstacle for corporations to come to this virtual world (besides budget) is the fear they can’t engage people here, and thus fail in their approach to promoting their businesses here. They need help, and some are eager to take advice. This made Beta Technologies, as early as in mid-2007, to start thinking about what products corporations really need, and planning a strategy for deploying them. Even though back then we were in the “media splash era”, it was apparently clear that almost all corporate virtual presences in Second Life were working against the Second Life culture, not with it. And we all know what that means: you cannot coerce people in SL to adopt your views of what a virtual presence should look like. It works the other way round. Just like opening a shop in India or Madagascar or Brazil is different from opening one in Japan or Germany, creating a corporate virtual presence in Second Life requires adapting to this “new country” โ€” and not forcing the new country (or rather, its residents) to adapt to your shop. The results for the ones unwilling to adapt should rather have been obvious, even in 2007.

In 2009, there are no more doubts, even though a few still insist in trying to model the virtual world to fit to their own corporate dreams, and not vice-versa, to adapt their strategies to work with Second Life. But that requires help โ€” not from marketeers that never logged in to SL, or from “social networking consultants” that only brag about the 5,000 followers they have on Twitter (most of which are worthless news-spreaders, or, worse, merely stupid spambots). It requires the expertise from people that are part of the Second Life community, in the sense that they engage with it on a daily basis. Second Life consultants have to be, first and foremost, part of the community, and not work against the community.

Now back in 2007 we could definitely claim we were “part of the community” โ€” by all means, each and every member of Beta Technologies is actively participating on some community in Second Life (sometimes several!), besides their work for the company. Many are prominent leaders of their own communities, or at least respected as important members on each. Their tastes, of course, are quite different, and thus they come from very different backgrounds โ€” from hair designers, from philosophers, from art and music fans, from building and scripting communities, from open source development, from bloggers that write about Second Life, from large-scale land barons who operate rental facilities. Most already operated their own successful SL businesses before working for Second Life; they had first-hand expertise in developing business and promoting it in SL. It couldn’t be otherwise: you can’t “sell” concepts to your RL clients if you don’t understand how SL works.

Nevertheless, the process of launching a series of products specifically targeted for corporations was lengthy and not easy. It’s clear that the biggest areas of interest is in establishing social relationships, but also in training. Thus, the Beta Business Park had to have social areas, and training areas. Clients also understand that at some point they will have to support their own events, and thus, areas for hosting events, both small (like an auditorium or a dance club) or large (like a trade fair), had to exist. They will possibly meet with some clients and partners individually; thus, they will need some sort of functional office space, where they can have their meetings in isolation, but open the space up for visitors, showing them what they’re doing in SL. They also need support, both technical support for their own teams (when you inadvertently delete a prim you didn’t want to lose…), but also in managing and promoting their future social networking activities. They will need access to information, documentation, case studies, all sort of materials about business in Second Life, and be constantly updated on what new business-related things are popping up all over the grid. And, most importantly, they need opportunities to reach out, engage new partners, expand their business network.

The Beta Business Park does all that for them (and, incidentally, also gives them some “office space” โ€” although, as I always say, we’re not competing with land rentals, there are cheaper alternatives elsewhere). But it does more. The whole focus is on people meeting with each other, exchanging information, networking together, expanding their own relationships.ย The motto, as said, is business to people, and this is what in our opinion is quite different from earlier approaches we have seen, where solution providers tended to offer technology to their clients. There are all sorts of business-oriented technical solutions โ€” some of them are being offered by Linden Lab, for example. However, technology is cheap โ€” in the sense that with hundreds of thousands of good content creators in SL (or millions of bad ones ๐Ÿ™‚ ) you can easily get cheap prefabs, cheap land, and even cheap office devices. The problem is that assembling a virtual presence is easy, but making sure that it does what is important for your business is not. That requires a thorough training in how to develop far-reaching social networks in Second Life, and, while you can teach people how to do that successfully, it also takes a lot of time to establish a very large network of relationships in Second Life so that it can be used successfully. Of course, for some corporations, this is all that matters โ€” a very few clever companies don’t even have a virtual presence in SL, all they have is a few reps that roam the grid and enlarge their network of contacts (which is cheap, it only costs time!). But for most companies โ€” since there is no mass-media advertising in SL โ€” this takes too long to do successfully. I would at least say that for the average user you need to spend 6 months in SL, logging in every day for a few hours, to start building a network of contacts that starts to be meaningful. Obviously that’s just a “rule of thumb” โ€” after all, people are different, and some are naturally born social butterflies ๐Ÿ™‚ while others have the unfortunate fate of having been born natural hermits โ€” but it’s a good first start to measure expectations. Since some virtual presences are just in SL about 6 months (a good compromise to do a valid experiment in SL), that might be not enough. Clearly, corporations need someone to jump-start their socialย networking for them.

Even though the team at Beta Technologies might have plenty of experience in that area, we’re also not light-headed enough to believe we have all answers. Instead, to prepare the requirements for the creation of the Beta Business Park, we have consulted with the social media specialists at Artesia. IYan Writer and iAlja Writer are well known in the business community, and they are extremely organised professionals who have years of experience in successfully deploying social networking for large corporate customers; they had also previously outsourced some work from Beta Technologies for one of their clients, the national TV network of Slovenia. They were not the only ones consulted in the process, but they were the ones targeting the market for us โ€” not the giga-corps with a bottomless marketing budget, who are more than able to hire their own consultants, but the smaller organisations (or the large ones with tiny budgets) in dire need to reach an international audience effectively for a small cost. Marketeers from very successful RL business ventures in Second Life were also consulted, and their advice incorporated in the final product. And, of course, there was a need to implement all of this โ€” for that, Beta Technologies relied on the vast experience of Above the Fold, a company in Vermont owned by Gayle Cabaret, that runs an insane amount of events for SL groups, organisations, and land rental facilities, and know better than anyone how to attract people to venues, how to train them, how to organise events and handle performers, and, of course, how to keep a whole, far-reaching network of contacts happily informed about what is going on (the kind of people that create information groups which residents desperately subscribe to be in touch with what they like; instead of relying on “pushing” groups to the inattentive resident just to spam them…).

The result is a very mixed, hybrid approach that feels strange to the outsiders. In the area of the Beta Business Park, you’ll find megacorps like Xerox side-by-side with tiny, one- or two-person companies. Scattered here and there are successful businesses that only exist in Second Life โ€” some of which that are not even registered companies iRL, but just individual content creators that have achieved recognition for their high quality products in Second Life; and others, like Language Lab or I-Learning Workshops, which, although they’re real companies in the real world providing language training services, operate solely in Second Life in their own mini-continents. Some presences don’t even really have a virtual presence in SL (in the usual sense of the word): for instance, fund-raising for RL charities. Others are strictly temporary: like Hair Fair ’09 (which, as you know, is just for SL businesses selling hair and hair accessories to SL residents, not having any “physical” products for sale โ€” but part of the results of the proceedings are given to a RL charity, Locks of Love), which just “exists” for a couple of weeks and then lies dormant for another year. This might seem confusing for some โ€” why mix and match so many different organisations and companies, some real, some small or tiny, some completely virtual, all in the same space?

Clairede Dirval at the B2P Black Sun during the B2P official launchThat’s the outstanding feature of Second Life: there is no real difference between all of them. Individual SL business owners or megacorps like Xerox are at the same level in SL. Both have to learn the same strategies to promote their businesses in SL. Both compete with the vast amount of information produced daily by the residents; and both compete to grab their attention. Both can learn from each other: anyone who is a successful business owner in SL knows exactly how to leverage Second Life’s advantages to increase awareness for their products and reach out to customers (if they didn’t know that, they would have been long gone from the face of the grid). Thus, when these so different types of business owners get together, they can exchange experiences, like never before. While there is no doubt that a megacorp marketing manager can surely understand better how to promote products in the real world, if they’re new in SL, they can learn a lot from a skin designer in SL. Putting both together and having them chatting to each other is the best way to transfer valuable information โ€” while at the same time extending both social networks in the virtual space, which is where it matters for both.

Thus, even the launch was quite unusual. You’d expect a typical business conference for the launch: a keynote speech from the CEO or the marketing manager; a series of tracks explaining how the Beta Business Park operates and what it can do for your company, a special press conference for the media, and perhaps a chill-out event at the end, where everybody would have some fun together. All of this announced on all media channelsthat remotely talk about Second Life. After all, even Linden Lab does it this way, and surely LL knows what they’re doing, right? ๐Ÿ™‚

Well, yes and no. You really can’t sell services to your customers that you yourself don’t believe in. Using an analogy from Second Life, what kind of hair designer would be successful if they wouldn’t wear their own hair? If it is our belief that the best kind of events to promote business in Second Life are not the “usual” models of recreating a RL conference in SL (even if we know it can work), and that social networking is the more modern approach to viral marketing that reaches further out at a fraction of the cost, how could we hypocritically do something completely different than what we say that works for companies? ๐Ÿ™‚

[Nevertheless, I should add, we’re not exactly neglecting business-oriented conferences; in fact, we’re actively promoting the B2P Fall 2009 Conference and requesting proposals from presenters. Oh yes, the B2P will, in fact, sponsor a lot of traditional business-oriented conferences as well ๐Ÿ™‚ ]

So, if you watch the launch day events, you’ll see just two types โ€” training sessions and chill-out events with good music performers. We might have had more variety โ€” throw in a fashion show, an art exhibit, a fireworks display โ€” but it was a question of compromise: Above the Fold focused, for this event, on gathering a selection of the best music performers in SL, divided in different music styles, to reach to a wider audience. The training sessions demonstrated on how you can get up to speed in SL with a brand new avatar in merely 15 minutes, on a very short session that goes straight to the point, and is aided by a well-designed orientation area with plenty of videos to complement what might have been missed by the newbie โ€” the idea is that corporate VIPs that come for the first time to SL have no time to waste and need to be trained quickly in order to be able to enjoy SL and make it immediately work for them to expand their own personal network of contacts. Nothing else matters as much.

Even the video presentation for the Beta Business Park was deliberately unusual. It didn’t feature flashy shiny graphics with grand sounding soundbites like you expect a corporation to present (e.g. “Come to SL now, where the economy is teeming” or “your next destination: virtual worlds”…). Instead, it is a funny presentation of the most distinguishing feature of the B2P: connecting people (ok, so Nokia already has that motto, thus we can’t use it ๐Ÿ™‚ ). It’s irreverent and light; but it’s also quite faithful to what SL has, and it uncovers the significant jewels of wisdom of Second Life: just because a megacorp CEO likes to use a winged blue dragon as his avatar, and has his SL offices up designed as a castle floating in the sky does not mean that he’s “less of a CEO” โ€” or that people don’t take him seriously. Similarly, if Mercedes Benz can promote a swimming suit fashion show in Miami in RL, and be taken seriously for doing that, why can’t they do the same thing in SL as well? Why has SL to be “more serious” than RL? ๐Ÿ™‚

That doesn’t mean that the solution proposition in the Beta Business Park is “less serious” just because it engages the SL community with activities that make sense from a SL perspective. Falling back to other analogies, Governor Schwarzenegger uses Twitter to post his thoughts on governing California. Just because he mixes in some personal comments, and is limited to 140 characters and can’t do long-winded political speeches on Twitter, does that mean he’s not to be taken seriously? (he has over a million followers that definitely take his Twitter presence seriously enough!) So if corporations and “serious institutions” have learned to adapt their communication strategies to the peculiarities of the social media platforms they use, shouldn’t they do exactly the same with Second Life? (I can imagine that Schwarzenegger’s virtual presence in SL, if he ever decides to do that, will feature the control room for SkyNet, and his avatar, of course, will very likely be the one from Terminator โ€” or possibly Conan the Barbarian)

This doesn’t mean that all virtual presences in Second Life should have to be surreal like FIAT’s floating-in-the-air auditorium. Each corporation will have to decide what will fit their image in Second Life best. But they will be advised to fully integrate within the culture of Second Life if they wish to succeed in using it as a promotional medium, as well as a social networking medium. Although Linden Lab is now aggressively promoting business use of Second Life (and aren’t we glad that they finally decided to do that!), they’re more focused on providing technological solutions and promotional material with case studies convincing corporations on the importance of being in Second Life.

But they’re forgetting the most important aspect of Second Life: its residents. Second Life is all about people โ€” and so is business.

[Correction: I-Learning Workshops is not exclusively focusing on language training in Second Life, but general education and job-skills training โ€“ consulting on using, setting up and best practices for teaching using SL. Thanks, Trudy!]

Disclaimer: I do work for Beta Technologies and naturally enough, although all the above is my personal opinion, I’m obviously biased in my beliefs of what works best in Second Life โ€” so biased, in fact, that, using a rather fun expression I always loved, I’m willing to put my money on where my mouth is ๐Ÿ™‚ Also, it should be said that the Beta Business Park is in continuous operation for a year now โ€” it’s not something that popped up suddenly because the “timing was right”. There are already several clients of the B2P; some have been with us for a year. The official launch was postponed to this date for several reasons, the most important of which was the start of the regular social networking activity taking place in the B2P. Until now, the schedule was a bit irregular and limited to a few events every other month or so. September 15th marks the date where the B2P became fully operational โ€” if you wish, it is not a “beta” version any longer ๐Ÿ™‚

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