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Second Stage: Joni West (real life, center; avatar, right foreground) has revived Second Life as a place to engage customers. Site: Toomey-Tourell Fine Art Gallery San Francisco, California which represents Joni West’s real-life fine art. The works on the walls are by Joni West. | photo illustration by Jamie Kripke

Fast Company

The Second Life of Second Life

A-list companies are returning to the virtual world of Second Life with new methods of customer interaction.

When the online virtual world Second Life first got hot a couple of years ago, Dell was among the companies that joined the craze. The computer giant built four islands: a factory where users could build custom PCs, a theater, a model of Michael Dell's dorm room, and a nursery promoting a plant-a-tree program. "We learned right away that maintaining these areas requires a lot of resources," says Laura Thomas, an e-business consultant at Dell who headed the efforts. Of course, if customers had followed, there would have been no problem, but "there wasn't enough usage of the space to justify the resources needed to keep it dynamic." Dell dismantled the factory last year, right alongside dozens of other companies that scrambled to stanch their bleeding Second Life budget line items. Second Life was over before it had begun.

Linden Labs, its creator, was surprisingly sanguine about companies fleeing. "Our focus has been to build technology that enables users and then stand back and watch what people do, instead of supporting a particular use of Second Life," says Glenn Fisher, Linden's director of business programs.

At the sametime, Joni West, a feisty San Francisco-based fine artist and business-development consultant, stepped into the breach. "I saw all these huge virtual spaces -- Adidas, Starwood Hotels, Dell -- and they were all empty," says West, 47. "It was ridiculous."

In just two years, West has rewritten the rules of corporate marketing on Second Life. An avid user of the site, she realized that billboards, commercials, and streaming video -- the all-too-common troika populating most corporate islands -- fell flat among hypercreative users who wanted to interact. Instead, she concluded, companies should try to spark user-to-user discussion -- a surprisingly cost-effective option on Second Life. This insight has produced successful initiatives for clients such as Sun Microsystems, Overstock.com, and Nestlé, and made West's firm, This Second Marketing, the leader in shepherding name-brand companies back to the virtual world.

West stumbled into the business potential of Second Life while pursuing her passion for fineart. "I thought it would be fabulous to create a virtual art gallery where I could bring people from all around the world," she says. One day, she was sitting a Second Life art gallery couch, doing just that -- talking to people from various countries --  and she had their rapt attention. "At that point, I realized how powerful one-on-one engagement could be in Second Life."

West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."

Translation: Second Life is not a place to make sales. It's also a venue where large companies don't have to spend $3 million to build an elaborate island when $10,000 to $100,000, usedjudiciously, can have a much larger impact. Linden Labs concurs. "New marketers often try to imitate another medium," says Ginsu Yoon, Linden's VP of business affairs. "Second Life isn't TV or radio or even the Internet, all of which push information out one way."

For an early campaign with Colgate, for example, West's staffers fanned out in the virtual world to give out about 35,000 Colgate smiles, along with a list of 10 cool places that make you smile. "Avatars aren't born with smiles, and people often don't know where to go in Second Life," she says. "Users want companies to bring something relevant to the community."

This spring, West signed up CareerBuilder.com, assisting in its efforts to expand internationally (60% of Second Life users live outside the United States). To woo users, CareerBuilder offers a dozen in-world jobs, such as gardener, guitar player, and computer programmer. Starting pay: 24 Linden dollars per hour (260 Linden dollars equals about $1). "On average, people are spending 37 minutes working at our venue, and we've had more than 50,000 job transactions in 10 months," says Ellen Miehl, CareerBuilder's marketing manager. "Pretty much every job is taken at all times." West also set up 50 CareerBuilder kiosks in high-traffic areas throughout Second Life. More than 6,500 users have subsequently applied for real jobs.

West's work has started to inspire other high-profile, higher-budget efforts. The Weather Channel has developed an attraction that lets users play sports (surfing, cycling, skiing) in varied terrains (beaches, deserts, mountains) with highly challenging weather conditions (tsunamis, avalanches, flash floods). Users spend an average of 30 minutes per visit, and the attraction draws a crowd around the clock. "It's not like a commercial, where maybe they watched and maybe they didn't," says Drew Stein, CEO of developer Involve 3D, which built the Weather Channel's virtual experience. "You're talking about a user actually paying attention, and you can time it. That's hard to replicate in any other medium."

Linden Labs has taken notice and is working on its software to make it more appealing for companies. It recently released development tools that let companies build private areas in Second Life for internal use. Linden is also working on making Second Life easier for new users, the majority of whom still drop out within the first two hours. "It's like moving to a new city," says Fisher, Linden's business director. "You have to find things and meet people, and we're working to make that experience easier."

The upshot is that the virtual world has survived the media spin cycle. "I think at first, everyone was there strictly for the hype and sunk their money into 15 minutes of fame," Involve's Stein says. "Now they're analyzing what they're doing and seeing how Second Life breathes." And in the process, breathing into it a second life.

Second Stage: Joni West (real life, center; avatar, right foreground) has revived Second Life as a place to engage customers. Site: Toomey-Tourell Fine Art Gallery San Francisco, California which represents Joni West’s real-life fine art. The works on the walls are by Joni West. | photo illustration by Jamie Kripke

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11 Comments

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Mohammed Murtaza

    West used techniques gleaned from 25 years of marketing experience, including digital and email campaigns, to woo potential clients. She calmly explained that the previous failures of Second Life were a result of not harnessing the medium appropriately to reach its 14 million users, up to 66,000 of whom are present at any time. "I describe the mistake companies made like this: Imagine you've never been to Manhattan. You cross the George Washington Bridge, and someone hands you a guidebook. The first place you're going is not the Reebok store."


    extras in movies

  • Joni West

    I was delighted to be selected by Fast Company as the focus of their story about the revival of real life brands in Second Life. I was not so happy about the numerous inaccuracies stated as facts in the article. Fast Company has been quick to respond to my request for a printed correction which will be published (as I understand it)in the November issue and the online version will be updated as soon as the edits have been completed. Thank you FC! There are a few things I would like to address immediately. First, I was never a store sign designer however I am an established fine artist with my work represented by prestigious galleries and have had one of my pieces in a museum exhibition in San Francisco. More importantly is the fact that I have over 25 years of experience in marketing communications in the production, creative, and account areas. It is my experience that has made This Second Marketing LLC so successful for our major real world brand clients. I never went about "undercutting" anyone's pricing; I offered value and ROI for budgets that I was given by the clients themselves. My "epiphany" story is way off and quotes out of context. When I started exploring SL, it was to open a virtual art gallery and to create virtual spaces as art. I was going to be another statistic of the typical person who signs up and leaves because I didn't connect with anyone or anything in-world. THEN I met some art fans at a virtual art gallery in Second Life and sat on a virtual couch experiencing and discussing the art that was hanging on the virtual walls. We were sharing art from half a world away from each other and THAT was when I felt the power of the immersive virtual world experience. Being a 25 year marketing communications professional, I immediately saw the potential for brand marketing in Second Life, no matter what the brand. The quote about "selling them anything" was taken out of context from a part of the interview when I said it didn't really matter what you were trying to market, it was the quality and uniqueness of the experience that made SL so powerful.

    I believe that determining the clients' objectives and aligning their wish list with what is actually possible in SL at this time is key to satisfying real world clients in SL. I agree wholeheartedly with Sherry Hall about integrating Second Life elements with all of the other marketing communications platforms. I started out thinking that Second Life would simply be a "booster pack" for effectiveness of live and digital marketing programs. There is no question that having a program in Second Life integrated with other marketing platforms raises the programs' visibility in the media exponentially. Second Life also provides a very cost effective way to produce multi-media content such as videos for YouTube and other social networking sites enabling a constant flow of new content to be produced easily and inexpensively.

    The last point I would like to make here is about the way This Second Marketing runs our island, This Second Island, in SL. We have a staff sim manager who patrols for "bots" and "campers" who are not actually present in the CareerBuilder.com venue. We track the numbers of people who interact with the jobs and the number of people who actually click over and spend time on the CareerBuilder.com site. There are far too many people engaging in the CareerBuilder.com jobs and site to reaonably think that they are all "campers" who take a job and walk away from their computers (though I am sure there are some). One of the things that This Second Marketing LLC strives to do is provide the residents of Second Life with what they want. Auto-paying (or "camping" jobs) are one of the top wishes of the population. Given that CareerBuilder.com is ALL about connecting people with jobs, it makes sense for their brand and the residents of SL for them to provide a varied selection of these jobs in SL. CareerBuilder.com has also sponsored great live performances and contests over the 15 months they have been in Second Life. As far as ROI for the client, in addition to all of the thousands of clicks to the site and the tens of thousands of people who have participated in job transactions, our clients has received an enormous amount of media coverage, including this Fast Company article, that they would not have garnered without their presence and programs in Second Life.
    I believe the future success of real world brands and companies in SL is going to be dependent on the advice that clients get from their Linden Lab Approved Solution Providers and how that program is managed. Simply being able to build a beautiful island venue is not going to cut it for real world brands when no one shows up or becomes involved with the clients' companies or brands. This means that real world companies who want to create effective marketing programs in Second Life must seek out Linden Lab Approved Solution Providers who have expertise in marketing while companies that simply need someone to build a great venue can seek out their Solution Provider based more on design qualifications. This entire platform and industry is so new that people don't know how to buy it. It will be quite a while before the virtual worlds find their correct space in the corporate framework and budgets...but it WILL happen!
    Joni West
    President
    This Second Marketing LLC
    415-776-4755
    joni@joniwest.com

  • Sherry Hall

    I applaud the user-to-user concept West is utilizing with her corporate clients to foster a more meaningful Second Life experience. My firm advises our clients that the proverbial adage “if you build it, they will come” is not true within “real life” business dynamics and certainly not true within Second Life. This virtual world medium demands quality interaction and attention to customer service.
    However, Second Life is still very socially oriented with regard to encouraging the participation with prospective customers, donors or students. The key for our clients is a promotional campaign that transcends Second Life and connects all other available mediums at their disposal within a Web 2.0 platform.
    For example, all advertising within Second Life should reference a website and/or a “physical location” known as a Sim. Advertising and promotional materials should be placed within Second Life to maximize “buzz” which can help general promotions and cross-promotions between mediums of websites, blogs and other tools. Conversely, websites and blogs should heavily promote the Second Life presence.
    Another aspect of supporting success in Second Life is providing a stellar “location” for the business, academic or non-profit organization to present their message. We help clients by providing them with highly qualified builders, programmers and 3D artists.
    In a “perfect” Second Life commercial world, clients deserve the benefit of all of the above. Then both the business entity and Second Life can thrive proving once and for all that the medium is the “interactive website” of the future.

    Sherry Hall [SL Name: Solange Benoir]
    President, Pulse Point Marketing, LLC
    Owner, Soul Creations Design and Building in Second Life

  • Rapa Tone

    After reading this article, I was really fumed. This is a total spin on what is really happening in SecondLife with some of these companies.

    The mention here of people spending 30+ minutes on property and being involved is a total fabrication. What is actually happening is that a user goes to the property, clicks one on an animation pose ball, and then can walk away from the computer. If this is being involved, then turning on your TV and leaving the house, is technically watching TV?

    "Agencies" that want to interact with SecondLife need to be more involved with the residents of SL, and not just present a location of drones being bombarded with ads.

    The companies that pay for these engagements need to really do more research and actually log in to see how productive the drones are. There are a few companies out there that do interact and care about the indigenous people of SecondLife and Ms. West's company is the exact opposite.

    I totally agree with the commenter above “Leigh Rowen”, and feel that once more companies such as that one mentioned above, then SL will be more accepting.

    This is just my opinion, after being in SL for over three years. Take note companies, if you want to join us, work with us. Don't trivialize us.

    Rapa Tone
    Candlewick Asylum ~

  • Leigh Rowan

    Arianne,
    Wonderful article, especially for those of us as virtual world marketing agencies are seeing a renewed interest in B2C, B2B and governmental uses of virtual worlds, especially Second Life. A few points, though, that I'd like to discuss with your article:
    You mention the CareerBuilder.com presence in SL, and in particular the way the engagement pays people to "be present" in SL at mock jobs. This practice is also known as "camping" - simply put, engagement times are seemingly inflated by the presence of people who are really not there (but their avatars are, scripted, and making them small amounts of money!). Good for traffic, but not good for real, in-depth brand engagement -- and in the end, not very good for the case of virtual world marketing, because really the agency in this case is selling inflated/non-existent brand interactions.
    What my agency has done with one of our flagship clients, the Ontario Government, is to create real-life job simulations that let users actually "experience" what it is like to fight a fire, or to perform CPR, or to analyze civic engineering data, etc -- all virtually before even applying for the job in the real world. These effective experiences offer users a real taste of what their potential job could be, and the effects are incredible. The number of applicants has ballooned and the level of recognition for the Ontario Public Service has increased exponentially.
    My point is this: when agencies - and companies/brands/governments that want to market themselves in virtual worlds - start looking at these spaces as places for virtual engagements with meaning (not simply places to get "paid") then the engagements themselves will pay off much more.
    Please let me know if I can provide you more detail on our campaigns or our virtual world success.
    Leigh Rowan
    TheSLAgency.com
    San Francisco, CA and New York, NY