Setting Up (Virtual) Shop in Second Life

Back in the wild and wooly days of the dot-com boom, I used to hang out on Fridays during happy hour with a bunch of fellow writers, technophiles, and friends. We’d do everything that one does during a typical happy hour — drink, schmooze, gossip, crack jokes, flirt — but we’d do it from the comfort of our desks (yeah, this was when cracking a beer at your desk at 4:30 on a Friday was OK). No matter where we were (and many of us were pretty far away), we were able to get together courtesy of a long-dead-and-forgotten multimedia chat community called the Palace.

By today’s standards, the Palace offered rudimentary multimedia features. Users were represented by 2-D avatars (icons, really) that floated above a simulated 3-D space. Sure, some folks figured out ways of animating their avatars (naughty animations were pretty much the norm) and some of the environments were pretty nifty, but in general it was like IMing with a group of friends while playing a 1992 video game. Even so, we thought it was pretty fun.

As the dot-com boom turned bust, the Palace busted from its lack of a coherent business model and declining usage. As the world collapsed around us, most of us didn’t really feel inclined to hang out and chat in a virtual community.

Today, a new virtual community has arisen to take its place: Second Life. Buoyed along by a collection of forces converging at the right time (Web 2.0 hype, growth in massively multiplayer online gaming, higher-powered computers, growing broadband connectivity, and an overall acceptance of social computing), Second Life use has grown to hundreds of thousands of users since its relatively recent inception.

User growth has led to real-world businesses waking up and taking notice. Businesses have been thriving on the service since its inception and are an integral part of the community. Recently, they’ve started to do some very interesting stuff.

One of the first to set up a virtual shop was American Apparel. It was followed by Adidas Reebok, Disney, and even Toyota, which offered a virtual version of the Scion xB for users to peruse. Nonprofits are even getting into the mix, with the Annenberg School of Communication, the American Cancer Society, and Creative Commons setting up virtual shop. One of the most celebrated (and ambitious) projects was the launch of a Starwood Hotels brand, called aloft, on its own island.

Agencies have been dabbling too. Leo Burnett Worldwide has opened a virtual branch, as did global PR firm Text 100. There’s even a Second Life-only agency called MetaAdverse, which seeks to promote virtual products created in the game.

The rush to create virtual outposts in Second Life seems a lot like the early days of the Web, where only the hippest of companies were online, mainly to show the rest of the world just how cool they were. Of course, this early pioneering behavior paid off big time for a lot of the early players, from which point of view the rush to Second Life seems to make sense.

Or does it? Should your brand or agency open an outpost in Second Life? Here are some things to consider:

  • Is your audience there? If you’re marketing to youth, the answer is probably yes. If not, it might bear some thinking (or testing) to determine whether you’ll get people to come to your virtual location. If your clients won’t do e-mail, chances are they won’t meet you in Second Life, either.

  • Can you handle the frontier? Unlike the Web, Second Life is a much more open environment, where your visitors can affect your actual virtual space. Groups like the Second Life Liberation Army are actively fighting the commercialization of the service. Be ready.
  • Do you have the in-house resources? Nothing is worse than a ghost town in cyberspace. Just like those cobwebbed sites where nothing ever gets updated, if you don’t have the in-house expertise to keep things up, it may end up working against your brand.
  • Do you have a real reason? Is this just a “gee whiz, look at us” move or a real strategic decision? The gee-whiz part might be the strategy, but you need to think about why you’re committing the resources.
  • Are there benefits other than publicity? Many product companies (and companies like Starwood) are seeing Second Life as a good place to test without going to the real-world expense of making physical objects. Do you have products or services that could theoretically be tested in game space?

It’s a brave new world. Tread lightly.

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