Is it Time You Got a Second Life?

It’s hard not to hear about Second Life recently, but the sheer volume of media reporting and blog commentary is matched by a similar volume of skepticism. Here, Second Life resident Neville Hobson explains why we should take note.

Launched in 2003, Second Life is a three-dimensional virtual world, an environment you enter via your computer and your broadband internet connection. If you’ve played role-playing games on your computer or on a games console like an Xbox or a PSP, you’ll get some idea of what Second Life looks and behaves like. But that’s where the similarity ends.

Unlike computer games, the Second Life experience is completely user created. Your clothes, your physical appearance – even the gender of your avatar (the digital version of you) – you can make as unique as you want.

Not only that, Second Life is a self-sustaining economy where you can buy and sell goods and services and make real money. In November, the first Second Life millionaire emerged, the result of shrewd virtual property dealing.

Membership of Second Life is growing fast. In October, the one millionth person signed up for a free registration. Less than two months later, registrations are approaching the two million mark, with the majority of members located in the US, Canada and the UK.

So what’s the appeal for nearly two million people (the majority of whom span the age range 18-44 – a dream consumer demographic for many companies)? Why companies joining this virtual world?

The appeal of Second Life

The user-created aspect of Second Life is a big appeal to many people, and no doubt some dream of making their own millions. I could spend the rest of this article discussing the virtual world’s personal appeal based on my own experiences since joining at the beginning of 2006.

Instead, you can read plenty of different opinions – just Google for “appeal of Second Life” – which reflects how uniquely different Second Life is to many people.

But let’s look at the appeal for the growing number of companies that have entered Second Life and try to get a sense of its far from virtual business benefits.

Dell, BBC, Nissan, Adidas, IBM, Reuters, Sony BMG, General Motors, Toyota, ABN Amro – internationally recognized names, all of which have established a presence of some kind in Second Life during 2006.

They’ve done this for a variety of different reasons, yet all have one reason in common – the desire to create and develop a personal connection with customers and potential customers in a place where there are no real-world manufacturing or service costs and few barriers to what’s possible.

It represents a completely new way to interact with information and communicate with people via the internet.

Therein lies a key to the business appeal of Second Life and a strong reason why communicators, internal and external, should pay close attention to what’s happening.

Take Toyota, for example, or General Motors’ Pontiac Division. Both car makers have opened virtual dealerships in Second Life where residents can test drive and buy cars – virtual replicas of real- world car models – for just a few dollars. For those car buyers, an appeal is that you can customize your car’s appearance in ways that are impossible or prohibitively expensive to do with a real car.

For Toyota and Pontiac, an appeal is establishing an early brand presence and developing a car culture within the Second Life resident community. Dell has taken the virtual-selling concept further by enabling residents to build and purchase real computers which are delivered to them in the real world.

Connecting global employees

It’s IBM, though, that provides an exciting look at the potential for this virtual world to stimulate and foster collaboration and information-sharing among employees scattered across the globe (the real-world one).

The company is adopting the use of virtual worlds such as Second Life as well as video-game technologies as a means of training new employees in the company’s cultural values, decision-making processes and technical skill sets, as well as holding employee meetings.

In reality, companies like the ones mentioned here are breaking new ground in Second Life, making connections with many of the early adopters among the Second Life community, experimenting and learning how to adapt business, marketing and communication models to a new and emerging
marketplace.

More companies are joining the fray, even if no one is quite sure yet what the impact will be on business, society and our personal lives. One thing no one has any doubt about is that there will be an impact.

[Published in the December 2006/January 2007 edition of Strategic Communication Management magazine and in The Hub.]