Second Life: The Database of Aspirations

I’m sitting in a coffee shop in midtown Manhattan, enjoying a cup of coffee and writing on my laptop. However, I’m also on Waterhead Island, where I’m watching Harry Nielson and Hot $pot Dancer sipping their own coffee. There are a few other people here are as well, sort of a little cluster.

Yow! Someone just collapsed in a big bloody mess.

OK, a little clarity. That first description is happening in real life. The second one is occurring in a window on my laptop, in my Second Life.

Second Life is an online world created by Linden Lab. It’s a completely 3-D rendered world where players (are we supposed to call ourselves players? I don’t think so) can generate online versions of themselves, looking however they want. Additionally, you can create new objects in the world, which can be shared.

It’s an extraordinary place, one marketers are starting to pay attention to. We’re about to enter the next great phase of online marketing as companies explore ways to bring their products and services into Second Life and other spaces like it.

Early Second Life Settlers

There have been a few early experiments in using Second Life to market products. Author Lawrence Lessig did an online book signing and hosted a presentation in Second Life last year, and a few others have followed. Clothing manufacturer American Apparel has advertised in Second Life, allowing people to clothe their online likenesses (called “avatars”) in the hip clothing brand’s styles. There’s news, too. MTV is planning to link an on-air Beach House promotion with a Second Life version. To top it off, Duran Duran is planning a concert in Second Life.

Second Life appears to be at an inflection point in its evolution for two key reasons. First, the population has reached a scale where it makes economic sense to use Second Life as a channel. And second, the profile of the population has gone from über-adopters (those pick up new technologies simply because they’re new) toward the mainstream.

Those two trends mean Second Life has a great opportunity to grow at an accelerated pace. Companies are attracted to Second Life’s audience, so they develop interesting new things for the space. As there are more interesting things in the space, more people will become attracted, and so on. It’s the knee of the Metcalfe Curve.

But Second Life and other virtual worlds offer a little more than that. I’m sure marketers will look only at the numbers and think “reach.” But the fact is, people are doing more than simply hanging out in Second Life. They’re amplifying and broadcasting some very interesting components of their personalities. If Google is the Database of Intentions, as John Battelle calls it, Second Life may be the Database of Aspirations.

The Creation of Personas

Think a bit about that first step when people sign up for Second Life. They have to create their on-screen personas. That is, they must describe what their avatars will look like, what their names are, and what they’ll wear. There seems to be two approaches to this. The first is to try to accurately depict your offline persona. The other is to try to take some leap and depict an imagined character. In my wanderings, I’ve found cowboys, ninjas, and a squirrel-man. I’ve also seen avatars that look like they leapt from hip-hop videos and gangster movies.

Members can also create brand-new objects and load them up to the world, either for their own use or to share throughout the community. People are actively generating some incredible richness and adding it to this community.

This is an amazing opportunity. People are taking bits and pieces of their personalities and bringing them out to the fore. You could have a person in a thousand focus groups and never find out he possesses the kind of creativity that would drive him to create a cowboy persona for himself.

Clearly, this is important. We marketers got very excited when we realized the words a person typed into a search engine were indicative of a need. We recognized search queries were perhaps the most elegant and efficient targeting scheme ever.

Getting Ready to Market in Virtual Worlds

So, what do we make of the activity happening on Second Life? I’m not going to pretend I’ve got it figured out. But I do know there are a few things that must be considered as you begin to work out a strategy:

  • This isn’t about CPMs (define). Clearly, a large number of people are in virtual worlds, and many of them are in that magic demo: males 21-35. You can place a banner in the world, and a lot of people will see it. That isn’t the idea, though. If you’re going to enter this world, think of ways to add actual value to it.

  • There’s a lot to learn by watching. As more consumers come online, they’ll use the tools in amazing ways to communicate to others how they see themselves. Think of this as a big exercise in learning more about consumers. Sign up for a Second Life account (it’s free), look at the people around you, and think about what they want the world to think about them. It’s an amazing experience in consumer research.
  • Get ready for consumer created… things. Second Life offers a set of tools that enable members to generate their own objects. They can also upload movies and sounds. Second Life may become the next canvas for the consumer-generated media revolution. Certainly, you can create versions of your product inside of Second Life. But what if someone else does it? Or if someone takes your product and makes something else with it? There are a huge number of possibilities. Be open to them, and be ready to see what happens.

Feel free to look me up. My avatar is named, cleverly enough, Gary Stein.

Related reading