News Analysis: Brands live it up in the virtual world

Big brands are no longer satisfied with a standard website, they want a living, breathing online presence - made possible through sites such as Second Life. Alex Black asks PROs what its virtual world has to offer.

At the time of going to press, Second Life (SL) had 17,644 people wandering around its virtual world. And in the past 60 days, more than a million of us have done the same.

Companies have been quick to realise that people piloting their avatar (virtual self) around this brave new world will be looking for stuff to do once they tire of virtual cocktails and chatting each other up.

Trendy clothes labels such as American Apparel, media brands including MTV, and sports companies such as Adidas and Reebok, have significant presence in this mega-hyped online universe. So do global corporates such as Intel, Sun Microsystems, IBM and Mic­rosoft. Elsewhere, Text 100 claims to be the first PR agency to have set up an ‘office’ in SL, while the media community has gone wild for the site.

An ‘acre’ of space can be rented for $20 (£10.20) a month. A whole ‘island’ is yours for $1,200. A software developer can then build anything you want – be it a shop, a hotel or even a track to drive your virtual cars around.

Reach target audiences
But as these companies already spend large sums on their own websites, why on earth are they buying nonexistent space on another?

‘SL provides a brand with a new channel,’ explains Lewis PR V-P Morgan McLintic, who handles PR for SL creator Linden Labs from the agency’s San Francisco office.

‘Car firms have their own sophisticated websites where you can view models in 3D, but in SL you can get in the car, paint it different colours, cut off the roof and drive it around.

Being able to interact like this extends the experience.’

SL is not just about plugging a product either. McLintic says companies in search of operational efficiencies are having meetings in SL rather than in their real offices.

Allison Takahashi from Toyota’s California-based Scion PR team (see below) says entrepreneurs are often the first people to become involved with innovations such as SL. ‘The site allows Scion to engage with folk in an environment in which they are comfortable. We don’t see it as high-profile exp­osure, but it does allow us to reach our target audience of trendsetters.’

So, how do you spread the word in a place like SL? Takahashi says customers find out about the brand through word of mouth, viral marketing campaigns and ‘pure discovery’.

McLintic adds that SL has an events message board and its own media presence via Reuters (see below), The Second Life Herald and The Second Life Insider. Blogs, forums and coverage in real-world media also help spread the word, including newswires such as Wired and CNET, and publication the Metaverse Messenger (‘a real news­paper for a virtual world’).

Not-for-profit organisations are also getting involved in SL. World Vision is in the middle of a three-month trial (see below), and PR manager Fiona Cole says the charity’s SL village has helped bring its online gift catalogue to life (PRWeek, 12 Jan).

‘It has definitely helped make the catalogue more understandable and raised the profile of both the gift scheme and us as a charity,’ she says.

The nature of SL lends itself to performances as well as virtual shops. ‘Artists including Duran Duran and Suzanne Vega are doing gigs in SL, and it’s an interesting way to gauge public reactions,’ says Jo Hanbury, director at youth and music specialist Espionage.

But she sounds a note of caution: ‘If you venture in just for the sake of it, it’s just another jump onto the marketing bandwagon.’

This view is echoed by other agency PROs. ‘Clients are asking if SL is cool, or if it’s “me too”,’ says Molly Hooper, head of Weber Shandwick’s SLAM division.

Another says that for more conservative clients, any involvement with SL is just ‘a step too far at the moment’.

Riots in cyberspace
Second Life is certainly still ‘raw’ enough a channel to be uncontrollable at times. Musician Ben Folds’ gig to launch Starwood Hotels’ Aloft Island ended in chaos as the ‘drunk’ and semi-naked virtual Folds attacked the audience (see below). Meanwhile, online guerrilla movement the Second Life Liberation Army are liable to attack anything they do not agree with.

The Fish Can Sing creative director Dan Holliday admits it was ‘a PR coup’ when American Apparel opened its virtual store – but is particularly scathing of most brands using SL for PR purposes, saying its time has already been and gone. He dismisses the site as ‘the default, lazy creative idea for an agency or a brand that doesn’t understand trends or how movements are started – let alone just what SL is’.

However, despite Holliday’s scepticism, commercial development is predicted to spiral on SL since the nuts-and-bolts of its software has recently been made available to all. The consensus is that SL is here to stay.

‘I was pretty sceptical about the PR potential for SL until about a week ago,’ says Weber Shandwick director of web relations James Warren. ‘The penny dropped when I went to San Francisco to meet the Linden Labs guys. Their vision is to make the web 3D. That will make online brand experiences far more immersive, and the concept a whole lot more interesting.’

Brands creating a stir on Second Life

Starwood Hotels The chain built the first hotel on its Aloft Island – blogging on the build progress to get punters interested. It hired musician Ben Folds (of Ben Folds Five fame) to play new material at the launch party. Folds’ avatar got drunk and attacked the 25-strong audience with a lightsaber.

World Vision The charity built a ‘developing community village’ in Second Life to promote its alternative gift catalogue. Visitors can mess about with tractors, lie on a hospital bed, milk a cow, pat a sheep, or even sit in a latrine. All the activities have a click-through to the real online catalogue.

Toyota The Japanese car maker has an island where people can test drive its Scion range. Visitors can customise the cars, spray them different colours and fit body kits. For the launch, sil­ver models were dropped at various points in Second Life so residents could go for test drives.

Reuters The first news agency to open a bureau in Second Life, manned by Adam Reuters (Adam Pasick). He covers business and finance news from the virtual dimen­sion. ‘The bureau is part of our strategy to embrace new platforms,’ says Reuters Media’s US PR director Ty Trippet.

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