Second Life, Lemming-Like

There’s no law or condition that gives a stranger the inalienable privilege to walk in and rub a dead badger over the walls. –Warren Ellis, “Second Life Sketches,” Reuters

So you’re a real-world marketer and you’re launching a store/island/concert/ad agency/kiosk/product/office in Second Life?

Big whoop.

Marketers started jumping on that bandwagon over two years ago. If you haven’t already followed your fellow lemmings over that particular cliff, don’t. Second Life launches are a dime a dozen (CareerBuilder being the latest to tip over the precipice). These misguided corporate efforts to be cool and with it are beginning to hold all the appeal of your mother’s cringe-inducing attempt to friend your Facebook friends.

Not that there haven’t been successful brand presences in the virtual world, perhaps most notably Starwood’s hotel prototype, aloft.

I’ve discussed Aloft many times with Marc Schiller, CEO of ElectricArtists, the digital shop that conceived and built the endeavor (which also included a blog, YouTube videos, and other elements). The fact that Aloft was part of an integrated, participatory campaign was a large contributor to its success, but the real boost Starwood got from the campaign was PR. Gallons of media ink, real and virtual, covered the then-innovative project. Pure first (or nearly-first) mover advantage.

Aloft ran its course. The property is closed. The real estate it occupied on was donated to a deserving nonprofit. And that was the plan all along.

This week, the “Los Angeles Times” ran a piece about the abandoned corporate real estate littering Second Life. According to the story:

Best Buy Co.’s Geek Squad Island was devoid of visitors and the virtual staff that was supposed to be online.

The schedule of events on Sun Microsystems Inc.’s site was blank, and…Dell Island was deserted. Signs posted on the window of the empty American Apparel store said it had closed up shop.

All that abandoned corporate property kind of resembles derelict corporate blogs, doesn’t it? Same thing, really. Hire an agency, drink some Kool-Aid…then move on and leave the mess behind you (for all to see, of course).

When not ignored by Second Life denizens — as well as their own marketing departments — virtual-world brands often become targets for avatars with agendas. Online corporate presences have been bombed, shot at, and vandalized.

Rules of Attraction

Inhabitants of virtual worlds don’t have real-world needs. To get very far in Second Life, you do need money (in the form of Linden dollars) to buy goods, services, and property. No small quantity of the virtual currency is spent on goods and services related to virtual sex. Way-far-out-there virtual sex, and no small number of sex businesses (one of which recently changed hands for $50,000) often seem like the primary purpose of Second Life. As ClickZ columnist Ian Schafer told the “Los Angeles Times,” “One of the most frequently purchased items in Second Life is genitalia.”

Advertisers who wouldn’t be caught dead buying media on a porn site seem to pay scant attention to this major environmental factor.

Hipper-than-thou PR and ad agencies, meanwhile, seem to believe holding meetings in Second Life is ne plus ultra in street cred. Even my college alumni association toyed with the idea.

All very well and good, I suppose, if your virtual fantasy world avatar is actually you. But something else altogether for the many who feel living a fantasy means living a sub- or super-human existence. In Second Life, no one need know or suspect you’re class of ’02 or the assistant procurement manager.

I suppose you could have several Second Life accounts with corresponding avatars, but getting up to speed with even one identity is time-consuming, not the easiest thing in the world to pull off technically, and generally involving some expense. It’s just not that easy or simple to participate under even one identity.

These factors doubtless underscore Linden Labs’ (the company behind Second Life) reluctance to release its actual user numbers. There are millions of registered Second Life accounts, to be sure. But there’s also a reported churn rate of a whopping 85 percent, and, according to a Forrester analyst, only 30,000 to 40,000 online users at peak times.

Not impressive numbers at all.

In the end, my guess is Second Life will go down as having served as an important test bed for virtual-world marketing. A few intrepid brands have been pioneers in this arena. Most are lemmings.

As in any other form of online media, knowing your audience is a pretty critical element of any campaign. Aside from their being tech-savvy early adaptors, not a whole lot is known (or knowable, when you get right down to it) about the denizens of Second Life.

Where’s this going? I’m betting on niche. Keep an eye on the up-and-coming vertical virtual worlds, like Doppelganger (virtual world meets social network); Viacom-owned NeoPets (kids); and Game Domain International (GDI, just acquired by Virgin).

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