Many companies, such as Starwood Hotels, American Apparel, and Reuters, have drawn fawning media coverage for their presence in the virtual world of Second Life.
They've gotten widespread credit for their efforts as trailblazers on the digital frontier and have positioned themselves as leaders in the new domain.
But what exactly can Second Life do for a corporation, really? And wouldn't it be easier to just throw up a corporate blog and a decent Web site and be done with it?
Not necessarily, says Georg Kolb, an EVP at Text 100 who has helped lead that agency's foray into this virtual world. The online world is simply "another platform for peer-to-peer networks," he says, but one that should only be used to do things that cannot be done with simpler technologies like blogs and Web sites.
"Many people are running into Second Life and opening a presence without being clear on the objective and outcome," he says.
Companies should enter Second Life planning to exploit one or more of its four key advantages, notes Kolb: education, for virtual classes; collaboration, which taps its uniquely engaging power as an internal communications tool for meetings and training programs; innovation, such as Starwood Hotels' posting of virtual hotel designs on the site to gain feedback from consumers; and marketing efforts, which can not only build buzz within the Second Life and online arenas, but also in the real world by using the mainstream media's natural interest in the innovative digital format.
Morgan McLintic, a VP at Lewis PR who heads the agency's Second Life account, says the virtual community can be a good place for companies to reach early adopters. At prices ranging from $50,000 to $400,000 or more, corporate entry into the space is not cheap, but it can be productive. But - just like blogs - be ready for feedback.
"If you have people in the real world against your brand, they'll voice their opinion in Second Life, as well," says McLintic. "But it gives companies a way to extend the experience of their brands."
Use Second Life only on things for which you can't use easier technologies
Second Life is a good tool for internal communications and may one day replace the conference call
Online marketing efforts in Second Life should aim to influence early adopters and spread buzz back to the real world