Supporting business in Second Life seriously

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 — 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 — 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 🙂 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 — getting the clients way closer to the producer in terms of feedback — 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 🙂 ).

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 — and friends of friends, and so on, exponentially picking up speed as the messages are spread over the networks — 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 — 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 — and that’s pretty much what you can do. People interact asynchronously — 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 — 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 — the trade conference — 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 — or intriguing! — 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 — probably during the coffee breaks — 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 — or simply do it in public text chat, if the speakers are using voice. But the audience can directly interact with the speakers — 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 — all you need is their names and add them as friends — without little effort. If most of the conversation was done in text chat, you’ll have transcripts of all that — 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 — be it a fashion show or a music concert. Only a few allow — in a limited way — 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 — clients, partners, media — 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 — 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 — where speakers will only have their full attention turned to the audience before or after giving their presentation, but not during the presentation — in this kind of events you can chat all the time (in text — public or private — 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 — 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 — 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 — live music continues to be ever so popular, with art exhibits perhaps coming in second place — 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.

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