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July 17, 2008

David Marrinan-Hayes:The virtual world will become a key marketing tool

Second Life has come in for a lot of bad press from brand owners who clamoured to join the Second Life bandwagon; opening stores, launching products and developing islands without really thinking about what their objectives and desired outcomes were.

There was mass build-it-and-they-will-come competition, with PR and marketing agencies being the chief culprits of this, advising their clients to cynically launch in Second Life in pursuit of press coverage for press coverage sake. To compound the problem, the general thinking was that, because Second Life is tacitly analogous to real life, it would suffice to simply translate the concept of real into virtual without any adaptation to the unique audience and culture of the platform.

Expensive lessons

As with the infancy of the web, a lot of people learned some expensive lessons, while those who took the time to understand the platform generally succeed in increasing brand awareness and goodwill among the Second Life audience.

Cost effectiveness is, therefore, fairly subjective.

Those who took the time to really adapt a concept for Second Life (examples would include The Guardian’s Second Fest and Adidas’ sneaker launch) probably saw significant returns in press coverage and goodwill, and through the sale of products and services.

As a business-to-consumer (B2C) commercial application though, Second Life is in its infancy. Where the real cost benefits can be seen is in the use of Second Life as large scale enterprise platform. Large organisations that are smart about the use of Second Life as a communication, collaboration and networking tool will certainly reap the benefits.

Clear benefits
For organisations that undertake masses of travel, the cost and time savings in using Second Lift as a communication tool will be phenomenal. Companies, such as Rivers Run Red, that are developing enterprise applications, will save businesses hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of pounds annually in flight savings and lost productivity hours. Not to mention the environmental impact of reducing the number of carbon emissions associated with travel (not just flights, but also transfers and hotel stays).

The communications systems within Second Life are just as effective if not more so than plain conference calling or even multi-million pound high-definition video-conferencing. Unlike conference calling, where sound is mono-directional, having a meeting in Second Life is equivalent to a real-world meeting with voice assigned to individuals and coming from the direction in which they are sitting. It's a more psychologically naturalistic way of processing of information for people, which reduces the number of interpersonal barriers that are traditionally experienced in conference calling.

As a B2C tool, those who use it properly can also reap benefits. Success currently seems to take the form of events, performances and exhibitions at this – essentially destination activities at a set time and location. Because of the way Second Life is distributed, it is important to call a number of people together at a given time and place in order to avoid ‘empty disco syndrome’.

The benefits of this are that it allows brand and business owners to stage events that reach a vastly larger audience in a more truly interactive manner than any other medium.

The de facto method
The Hospital Club last year staged an art exhibition in Second Life, which matched a real world exhibition in our gallery. The exhibition, Warhol versus Banksy, received a huge amount of international press attention, and rather than disappointing international art lovers our exhibition allowed them to experience the joy of viewing the art works and interact with fellow gallery goers without incurring the cost and hassle of a trip to London. The exhibition was phenomenally successful with an international audience – particularly in Brazil and the US, and increased our footfall by a factor of two.

With ever-increasing broadband speeds and faster computers, virtual worlds will become the de facto method for experiencing any kind of multi-media content online (as opposed to flat text and e-commerce that will continue to work best in the 'flat web').

The market will be huge, and unlike the flat web, people are used to micro-paying for content and services, which gives it an inherently more stable and successful business model.

Those who succeed in this arena will be the companies and brands that recognise its uses and exploit the right medium and the right time.

David Marrinan-Hayes is the former digital development manager of The Hospital Club

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