Supporting business in Second Life seriously

The Beta Business Park launch

Beta Business Park launch — 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), 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” — 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 — 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” — 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 — 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” — 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. 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 — some of them are being offered by Linden Lab, for example. However, technology is cheap — in the sense that with hundreds of thousands of good content creators in SL (or millions of bad ones 🙂 ) 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 — 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 — since there is no mass-media advertising in SL — 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” — after all, people are different, and some are naturally born social butterflies 🙂 while others have the unfortunate fate of having been born natural hermits — 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 social 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — 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 — why mix and match so many different organisations and companies, some real, some small or tiny, some completely virtual, all in the same space?

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