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April 4, 2008

Peter Dunkley: A risk-free way to add a virtual element to your event

One of the more common misconceptions about holding events in virtual worlds such as Second Life is that they always involve avatars [your character within the virtual world] presenting to avatars. This is not necessarily helpful for those in the industry who are looking to experiment with virtual worlds as an extension of their events, as it means that you've got to find a speaker who is an experienced Second Lifer, or train someone to the point where they can handle themselves in a virtual presentation or seminar.

In fact, it is almost certainly easier, and more compelling for the potential delegates, to stream a live event into Second Life. All you need is a decent camera, a laptop and good connectivity. And a location, of course.

A compelling option

To be truly compelling, there should be a two-way inter-connection between the real world event and Second Life. This again is straightforward. Just as it is possible to stream into Second Life, it is also possible to show the Second Life audience, via a screen, in the real-life venue. This will allow the Second Life delegates to ask questions and generally interact with the speakers – and maybe the live audience – as a part of the broader event. If you're facilitating this level of interaction, and providing opportunities for networking, then you are really starting to leverage the social basis of virtual worlds that is one of their main advantages over other channels.

Having a virtual audience raises the possibility of selling incremental advertising, sponsorship and the floor space for trade stalls for the virtual offshoot. If your sponsors are actually manning their stalls, then the event is likely to be more attractive to the target audience as well. We found that traffic through the stalls of the developers expo we ran in November continued for the two weeks that the stalls remained in-situ, and that the number of visitors after the event actually exceeded those that attended on the day.

This arrangement, live speakers supported by a market place with stalls and displays, was recently used with some success for the United Nations Conference on Climate Change in Bali, where several meetings and seminars were streamed into a dedicated area within Second Life, allowing for question-and-answer sessions. This maybe went some small way towards addressing the fundamental incongruity between the supposed mission of the event, to reduce carbon, and the damage caused by flying 10,000 delegates and their partners over to the sunny island of Bali.

Keeping it real
Live streaming also avoids some of the more bizarre extremes of using avatars to front events. I went to SecondFest last year, sponsored by The Guardian, to see the Pet Shop Boys. They were represented on stage by two avatars, accompanied by a troupe of dancing avatars, all of which seemed completely pointless. Seeing the live stream of the concert, though, surrounded by fans of the band from all over the world was pretty cool.

Of course, using avatars as speakers can make absolute sense, especially in circumstances where the event is virtual-only, when it will avoid the costs of setting up a location and the supporting technology. The speaker can then do their bit from home or the office with a minimum of inconvenience.

The benefits of using live streaming as a basis for your first steps into virtual events are worth thinking about. Not only are you removing any hurdles for the speakers to negotiate, but you are also providing a more compelling integration of the real with the virtual. It is easy to set up and provides the opportunity to sell to a completely new audience who may not be able to attend the real-life event due to time pressures or geography.

The virtual pay off
The pricing of a Second Life event for the virtual delegates is clearly of considerable interest. As the organiser of an event you have an understanding of what the delegate is paying for. Factors to be weighted include the reputation of the speakers, the quality of the content, the ability to network with their peers – or the opportunity to spend a few days in a nice location at the company's expense.

If the value of your event is geared more towards reputation, quality and networking, then the value of the virtual offshoot is likely to be pretty commensurate with the real-life event. Although there may be more people at the real-life event to network with, this is likely to be balanced out by the fact that networking is easier in Second Life, where people are generally less inhibited. The virtual delegate is saving money and time on travelling and accommodation, so the gross cost of the event is going to be cheaper anyway.

You clearly won't want to be cannibalising your real-life attendees, so it is probably best starting with a cut-down set of sessions from the event. If you are going to be charging for them, and I would strongly recommend that you do, you will need to ensure that the sessions streamed will be seen as high-value. As with all events, the quality of the content is going to drive sales, and there is no reason that this would be any different in Second Life.

Adding a virtual option to your programme may capture additional sales without incurring any up front risk. As bookings are made you can expand or contract your Second Life venue as necessary. The virtual environment is more flexible than you may be used to in real life – although make sure your developer knows what's happening to avoid any last-minute panic!

Peter Dunkley is director of virtual world consulting agency depo consulting

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