Supporting business in Second Life seriously

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 — 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 — 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 🙂 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 — 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 — 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 — but not necessarily the ones most interested in investing! — 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 — quickly! — 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 — 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 really 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 — 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 façade.

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… 🙂 ), 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 — 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” — 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 — 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” — 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 🙂 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 — 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 — 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 — you wish to become a part of Jobs’ Reality Distortion Field. The “presentation” has to be engaging and entertaining — 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 — 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 — 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.

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