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Second Life Marketing

Posted by SIM on March 12, 2007

Second-Guessing Second Life: Is this Virtual Playground Worth Your Marketing Dollars?
by Kenneth Musante
March 12, 2007

The massively multiplayer world Second Life, a creation of 3D software developer Linden Labs, represents a bold new trend in online marketing. Auto manufacturer Toyota set up a virtual city in Second Life so users could test drive an electronic version of the Scion xB compact hatchback. Clothing manufacturer American Apparel opened a virtual store in Second Life that sold virtual versions of American Apparel clothes and used the environment to get feedback on a newly developed style of jeans. Many other companies have followed suit. But is Second Life really a good place to spend your marketing dollars?

Second Life jives heavily with the Web 2.0 mentality. It’s community-based and gives users control of just about everything. In fact, almost everything in Second Life, except for the land itself, is created by users with the scripting and 3D modeling tools provided by Linden Labs. Users buy and sell these in-game creations, powering a growing in-game economy made entirely of virtual “Linden Dollars.” The fluidity of the environment makes Second Life both an attractive and an uncertain platform for marketing.

For a Second Life marketing campaign to be a success, it has to generate word-of-mouth spillover into the Internet at-large. The audience that can be reached directly by a Second Life campaign is actually very small. That entails about 20,000 to 100,000 people over a period of a few months, estimates Reuben Steiger, the founder of Millions of Us, a company that builds campaigns in virtual 3D worlds like Second Life. However, those few who experience the campaign usually spend anywhere from one to five hours interacting with it. “That’s a level of engagement that’s off the charts,” Steiger notes, considering that most online advertisers measure engagement in seconds.

In order to participate in a campaign on Second Life, users have to actively seek them out. The virtual land area in Second Life is about five times the size of Manhattan and growing. Finding a virtual construction requires knowledge of that location’s coordinates through other means, usually a blog post. Those who actively seek out a campaign are already interested in the brand. That, coupled with the high level of interactivity, can create brand evangelists, influential voices online who blog about things they’ve experienced and can amplify the reach of a campaign. “We’ve seen exposure and reach in the blogosphere anywhere from 10-30 million impressions, and we see similar numbers in main stream media coverage,” says Steiger.

In one campaign, Millions of Us worked with Butler, Stein, Shern & Partners to generate spillover by creating virtual screenings in Second Life of a series of funny videos called Hammer and Coop promoting the MINI Cooper S. The series stars Starsky and Hutch-esque crime fighters named Hammer and his buddy Coop, a KITT-styled talking MINI Cooper. Users are encouraged to share different elements of the campaign through other forms of social media. In one instance, they were encouraged to take photos of themselves and upload them to Flickr, Yahoo’s photo-sharing service. The creator of the most popular photo in turn will win a prize.

Still, there is no surefire guarantee that a campaign will resonate with the blogosphere or garner mainstream attention. Millions of Us has had both successes and failures. Steiger believes the key is to make campaigns that are as open-ended as possible to allow for maximum user interaction.

Marketing within Second Life itself also has technical hurdles to overcome. For example, Second Life’s search system makes it difficult for users to find obscure items and locations like the Hammer and Coop screenings. Linden Labs’ user interface is also complicated and confusing to new users, which can prevent them from exploring further into the world.

There is also no way to measure a direct correlation between a marketing campaign in Second Life and sales. Any exposure is currently used for brand recognition and testing. For example, when it created the virtual store, American Apparel also used the virtual space to test people’s reaction to a new style of jeans before they were released in stores.

“Businesses are still going to check it out even if it’s just in their R&D budget,” says Clay Shirky, a faculty member at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program, and a critic of Second Life’s business model. Shirky believes that the number of actual users within Second Life is much too small to have a real commercial impact.

Aside from extra publicity, Linden Labs actually has little to gain from marketers in Second Life. Linden’s income comes from the sale of virtual land, user subscription fees, and Linden Dollars (Second Life currency)-to-US Dollars transaction fees. All advertising and marketing transactions are handled by third-parties like Millions of Us.

Linden Labs’ director of marketing, Catherine Smith, contends that Second Life is a platform that anyone can build on, marketers included. But she was unable to say how much virtual land was purchased by companies and organizations rather than individual users.

“I think a great indication of what’s happening in Second Life would be to look at the velocity of the economy,” says Smith. The economic information is posted regularly on the Second Life home page and details the growing in-game economy, based on the virtual currency of “Linden Dollars.” She encourages anyone thinking about marketing in Second Life to first get involved in the community and get a feel for the culture and then to look at the economic statistics and talk to Second Life software developers to find out what works business-wise and what doesn’t.

So the lesson learned here is to launch a campaign in Second Life, you need the patience to understand the community, the willingness to let users take control of your brand, and the resources to burn if it doesn’t work as-advertised.

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