Frank Rose writes about Second Life

In the last issue of Wired, Frank Rose, one of their regular reporters, tackles the topic of Second Life – specifically the frenzy of attempts by big businesses to establish their brands and create a presence there. As Frank uncovers, this frenzy is driven as much by the fear of missing out on the next You Tube or MySpace as it is by any particularly compelling idea of what to do in a virtual world. As anyone who participates in SL will tell you, big brands have virtually no presence and no major impact on the fabric of the SL experience. Frank is quick to seize on the salient facts – while the premise of SL is inspired by cyberpunk visions of the meataverse as a bustling Blade Runner-esque virtual metropolis, the reality is that the technology which SL is built on can only practically support congregations of dozens of people. This is the social and business atmosphere of a campground, not a limitless neo-tokyo.

However I think Frank missed out on a few other salient points, mostly because he would never experience them from the perspective of SL’s PR machine, Madison Ave execs trying to break into the world, or the clever SL entrepreneurs that are selling their significant SL creation skills to those same ad execs.

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First of all, virtual worlds are not the web. Duh, but somehow something that keeps getting overlooked. The web is a publishing experience. It allows a creator to broadcast their vision to many, who will then experience it at their own pace, and most importantly in a singular fashion where one viewer is absorbed by one instance of the published item and connects with it in isolation. This is similar to TV and very similar to print. SL is a totally different experience. By giving you an avatar and a sense of place, users don’t just interact with the published data, they are actually driven by the nature of the human mind to first, interact with each other. Its a well established fact that in virtual worlds people observe the same social conventions of personal space as they do in their own cultures. Discussion between avatars is much more civil and subtly negotiated than discussion on chat rooms or bulletin board systems. People are programmed to react to people first, and react to them in specific ways. Virtual worlds are social. Duh. Designing spaces and experiences that are focused around social interaction is actually a well understood problem. Party planners, restaurant designers and architects are just a few of the disciplines that create places and experiences for people to do that. Good marketing execs will soon realize this and start shifting their strategy away from advertising and retailing to sponsoring and event hosting – only problem being the technical limitation above.

It’s worth noting for a minute here what does work in SL. SL wants to be social, but can’t be large scale. It wants to be 3D and real time too (see the bevy of well made vehicles and game systems that chug along painfully slowly with millions of bugs) and the technology wont let it there either. So social small scale is all that’s left. Small intimate communities of friends. Small intimate night clubs. And of course, sex. In that context products and branding work very well. Most success stories in SL are based of either providing land (a place to socialize), clothes (something to talk about / an essential part of defining your personality for socializing), animations (critical for expressing ones self in a social context), or social objects (see sex bed – also see Neo Realms Fishing Camp.). Non social objects (building tools and vehicles) are popular, but are either used by a small group of creators, or pretty much used only for novelty until the limits of the technology smacks the users in the head.

The challenge as I see it for real world brands is to do something meaningful in one of those four categories. Just like success for Coke on YouTube was catering to the essence of the experience and not just moving experiences from one media to another. Viral video competition of exploding Mentos + Coke gysers works on YouTube. Serving the same TV ads does not.

You want practical examples? Here’s some for each of those catagories:
1. A space of your own requires a brand that people trust to build spaces. Starbucks could get into the land baron business and sell prefab spaces tastefully decorated with streaming music that is linked to their store’s music selections.
2. Clothing brands require more than just logos since those are easily knocked off – one major gap right now in SL fashion is the one size fits all mentality – you need a real business to offer the same outfit carefully adjusted for different body shapes. Vouge could get into the fashion business and offer a line of their haute couture hits, but ‘off the rack’ sized to different avatar shapes.
3. Personal motions seem impossible to brand. Unless they’re part of a social meme – D’oh! Budweiser could offer animations and sound kits to tie in with any of their funny and meme-able ad campaigns – think wasaaaaabi! How about a Tony Hawk branded skateboard? It’s not the board that is unique, but the motion capture of his signature tricks that youch gives it value.
4. For social objects I’m going to suggest something that seems almost anti-social until you think about the most social of all human activities – sitting around the campfire. THe modern equivalent is the television, and social networked viewing has huge potential. NBC could offer “TVs” which are stream a selection of their most popular shows, complete with some advertising. Offering their proprietary content in an easy to consume way allows those small social groups in SL to answer “what do you want to do tonite?” with something other than dance or shop.
Part of the key is playing to SL strengths, as described above. But it will take more than that, because of how easy it is to produce knock offs, you need to offer unique value, even in a giveaway. Budweiser gestures only have value if they mirror a successful meme campaign. Starbucks needs to offer a feeling of place that really feels uniquely Starbucksian. NBC’s content is copyrighted, but in this era of rampant piracy the real value they would offer is the ease of use and simple setup for getting content into your SL home. The proper leveraging of a real world brand will make knock offs not worth it or impossible.

Is it that simple? Just, “know the medium” and “offer differentiated value”? Sounds obvious, but I think there’s one other factor which needs to be understood. Know your audience. The people in SL are not the average demographic of the web. They are a particular psycho-graphic profile that gets tremendous satisfaction from the kinds of things that are currently doable in this still imperfect, not so brave, new world. For simplicity’s sake consider the Makers and the Consumers as the two big disproportionate chunks of people in SL.

Builders and programmers make up a select percentage of creators who are attracted by the possibilities of the medium. Notably most of these folks are craftsmen, not the big picture marketers and entrepreneurs. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way (I count myself among them), but honestly we are the grunts, the folks on the assembly line. Our satisfaction comes from making something with our own hands, and the business and products we create are a reflection of that, as are the products and services we consume: open source, technically clever, artistically expressive, highly individualized, etc. This group will resonate with a very different set of brands and propositions than the large majority of SLifers.

It is also a mistake to identify the majority of SL Consumer style users as mainstream. They’re not. They can’t be if you think about what’s successful in SL outside of the collaborative creation environment. What we’re looking at are socializers who are satisfied and successful in a text only environment. Voice support is being implemented, but that doesn’t reflect the reality of today (and frankly I have my doubts about how scalable or successful voice will be). Right now consumers are there to socialize, and somehow find the odd, jerky, text based socialization of SL appealing and differentiated enough that they are investing regular time in that. Time that could otherwise have been spent taking a class, going to a bar, volunteering or doing one of a hundred real life social activities. Who are these people?

The obvious answer is folks who are really looking for a ‘second’ life. It’s a fact you discover very quickly when you join SL, some folks are being ‘themselves’, the majority are presenting avatars and possibly persona that are radically different from their real life selves. Interestingly enough people seem to move from one to the other as they realize that the virtual world offers them the freedom to reinvent themselves, so perhaps this has universal appeal. Perhaps. It’s just as plausible that many people are happy enough with themselves and the way they socialize in the real world that virtual socialization has no appeal. For the time being however this seems to be a distinct type of person, whom it may be very hard to connect a brand with. If they are dissatisfied with reality and all the brand in it, there’s no guarantee you can offer them anything in virutality. For some, the fantasy of the ultra rich is an appealing second life – it is easy to own a yacht and mansion, sportcars and fancy watches. But taking real luxury brands and selling them for a pittance on SL seems like a detractor to the brand, not to mention that it could very well turn off those ‘aspirational’ second lifers. However there are just as many (if not many more) for whom their SL is a more whole hearted rejection of the values of real life. Consider the reportedly huge percentage of Furry players, or Goreans. These are extreme social nonconfromists. A few choice brands could play here (maybe Tony Hawk), but many may simply not even want to sell to this audience.

As an aside its also interesting to note that it seems that most of these folks who play with different avatars or different persona are really adopting a second personal identity. This is not a case of roleplaying as it is usually couched, but more of a singular adoption of presentation of self that is not possible (or acceptable) in the real world. Many claim that they roleplay but I recall a study (I know citation needed) where it was shown that most folks adopt one identity and stick with it, often also linking that identity with their RL identity. In other words it’s not “today I will be a 2foot teddy bear today, and tomorrow I may be a dashing super spy,” but rather “I know being a mafia kingpin is silly and over the top, but it expresses something essential about me and who I want to be.” Even folks who continually modify their appearance do it under more or less one persona – “I am that wacky guy who is a blast at parties who is constantly in a new costume,” as opposes to “no really, I am a T-Rex today! Me hungry. Bite. Bite. Bite.” I bring this up because it presents an opportunity. If you do have a brand that can be made relevant to the persona of how a person wishes to be, then it should have tremendous stickiness. Petco offering furry products may be a stretch, but if the Goth, Vampire, EGL community were offered quality clothing under a brand they can also purchase in RL I think you would start to see the synergy that folks are looking for.

Know the medium, know the audience, offer something unique. None of these principles are new. The only problem is that the folks trying to use them have no real, organic, ‘lived’ experience of SL. They are trying to orient themselves based on a PR machine that does not understand itself or is actively trying to deceive (arguably well intentioned because of a zealous conviction of what the future should be) or SL residents who have some very specific technical skills and are trying to market them regardless of how relevant they are. It may simply be that when you honestly look at those three dictates that it may not be worth getting your brand into SL. Having first mover advantage assumes that the early adopters value the same things that the mainstream does. True for web 1.0, but it’s not clear that it’s true even for web 2.0. It certainly wasn’t true for iPod – there were hundreds of MP3 players available and successful before Apple introduced the perfect mix for the masses: ease of use, stylish design, size, and music delivery.

Today SL is like the wild west. What’s successful in Deadwood won’t fly twenty years down the line. In a world where land can be created with a push of a button there is no first mover advantage to staking a claim. The gold is in the people, and the time to set out and hunt for it is when you see the demographic of your brand about to make a big leap into a social second life. Frankly, I don’t think that applies to most brands right now, but it does bear watching and preparing. I too believe there’s gold in them thar hills.

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