Many marketers are beginning to take their first look at Second Life, alongside other social media phenomena. Celeste Altus discovers how brands are interacting with people - virtually
Earlier this month, with its executives such as cofounder John Gage (actually, his avatar) at the helm, Sun Microsystems became the first Fortune 500 company to hold a press conference in another world.
Sun took its business to Linden Lab's Second Life (SL), an online, private, 3-D virtual world that is growing at top speed, from gamers and online chatters to a venue for PR and its high-profile clients.
A major player in Silicon Valley, Sun didn't want to be left behind.
"We are establishing a presence in Second Life, which we will use to communicate to that community what Sun is about," said Sun's chief gaming officer Chris Melissinos during the October 10 event. "So we're not just about the financial services guys, and we're not just about the federal government ... this is really the next evolutionary step in what we've already started. When we started blogs.sun.com, all of a sudden it gave a very personal face to a massive company."
SL is an immersive online environment in which subscribers, known as "residents," interact with each other, make money, gamble in casinos, buy property, and make new friends, among a host of activities.
People spent its currency, "Linden Dollars," to the tune of $7 million last month alone, according to figures from San Francisco-based Linden Lab.
Catherine Smith, director of marketing at Linden Lab, says her job has entered overdrive this year, particularly after an April Business Week cover story on SL. It promises to ramp up even further now, after The New York Times published on October 19 "A Virtual World But Real Money," a long tech feature about the economic aspects of SL.
On the heels of the Business Week story, Smith describes handling the media and marketing tasks for SL as "drinking from the fire hose.
"It was exciting and terrifying," she adds. "[And it] has ratcheted up in the past three to four months. It's become much more frenzied."
Smith gets media inquires from all over the world, right down to people who don't really understand SL, calling to ask how to advertise on the Web site.
Advertising for SL itself was a non-issue.
"PR seemed to drive word of mouth," Smith says. "The more people were talking about it, the more blog hits it got, and it be-came a self-perpetuating thing."
So Smith focused on dealing with the press, saying that the SL experience is best explained through telling its stories.
"I have been talking to the media about what people are using Second Life for," she explains. Among her findings, she has discovered support groups such as Brigadoon, a private island populated by people with Asperger's syndrome and their caregivers, and ShockProof, for stroke victims; as well as residents of the virtual world who are making a living selling land and being fashion designers.
"There are as many stories in Second Life as there are in real life," Smith says.
The consumer experience
In terms of marketing on the site, Smith said SL offers a consumer experience that is much richer even than what advertising can do in the real world.
"It's not clicking on the billboard," she stresses. "It's having the car in front of you, and being able to drive it."
For example, Nissan marketed its new Sentra on SL by creating a driving course on its Nissan Island, where the residents could virtually test out the new models in the 3-D version.
Toyota took its youth-targeted Scion brand into SL, giving away virtual vehicles to launch its presence there. It has now begun selling all three Scion models on SL.
In an interview with The Economist, Toyota marketing manager Adrian Si said the hope is that residents will customize their cars, both creating an aftermarket in SL and also potentially allowing Toyota to gain customer insight as to improvements it might make in the real world.
The future of SL's PR will be directed at launches in Japan, Korea, and Germany. Leading that effort will be Lewis PR's San Francisco office, which won the business this month in a two-way competitive pitch.
Lewis VP Morgan McLintic heads the account and says his agency will support SL's ambition to create a thriving community of millions of active residents. In explaining Linden's choice, Smith says Lewis understood her plight - "I [felt] like I was the press attachŽ for a newly emerging country," she says - likening the agency's job to building the information ministry.
"We needed someone completely committed to Second Life and immersed in it," Smith says. "It's a complex, messy place where all kinds of things are happening. There is a lot going on, so I need-ed someone who would be my partner and jump in on it."
Part of the PR initiative is also sensitivity.
"We have a lot of issues of wanting to be respectful of our residents," Smith says. "Second Life is what it is because of the residents."
As of October, SL's resident count hit the 1 million mark.
Comparatively, a different, longer-established virtual world called World of Warcraft has 7 million subscribers.
Lewis plans to start an educational campaign helping real-life brands establish a successful in-world presence in SL.
Sun Microsystems was one of the biggest names, but definitely not the first company to venture into social networking and leverage its immense popularity into company revenue. Reuters is in the process of opening an SL island with its news streams available on portable devices. Suzanne Vega was the first musician to play a concert in SL, her camp says. And government is also entering the digital game: Former Virginia Gov. Mark Warner virtually visited in August.
Global PR firm Text 100 made a splash in August when it established its own island on SL on which CEO Aedhmar Hynes (at least, her avatar) is a highly accessible participant.
"Our purpose of being there was not to say, 'This is the future.' It was very much that this is an extension of what we do," Hynes says. She adds that Text 100, as a tech PR firm, has used more social media as its sees peer-platform technologies experiencing phenomenal growth.
And the client demand is certainly there, Hynes continues. "Because we specialize in tech already, many [clients] are at the cutting edge of tech and innovation. There is a great deal of interest in virtual worlds. At this stage, there are some clients who want to figure out their place... while others are watching with interest."
One of those not waiting and watching is Adidas/Reebok, who has already taken the dive and now offers products in the virtual world. Adidas set up a store in SL, coinciding with the launch of its A3 Microride athletic shoe. Residents can buy them for their avatars to wear.
Reebok has a separate area where Second Lifers can customize shoes: the residents are able to design athletic footwear for their avatars and then order versions for their real selves.
The most widely known clothing shop on SL is American Apparel, which in reality has 80 locations across the US. It has, since June, been operating a thriving business on SL, where residents can dress up their avatars in their trendy casual clothes. This was a precursor to the retailer's launch of its first denim line this fall. Residents who buy virtual clothes get a 15% discount at the real stores.
Other social avenues
Second Life is not the only social media phenomenon that is becoming a marketing medium. Eastwick Communications client Simple Star, which makes the photo-sharing product PhotoShow, uses the massively popular MySpace as a way to draw attention to its business. Simple Star CEO Chad Richard uses the site for what he calls "research and ad purposes" as well as to help get a better sense of how PhotoShows will be featured and used there.
Richard notes that MySpace is a communications medium for a new generation. He says he wanted a better understanding of the site and its uses, and to truly understand the culture, he needed to exist within it.
"I liken it to doing business in a foreign country," Richard says. "You need to visit, understand the cultural nuances, and see for yourself, instead of just reading industry reports."
Disk-drive maker Seagate Technologies of Scotts Valley, CA, recently launched a gadget-design contest with a prize of $5,000.
The entrants are being asked to create something technologically possible, enjoyable, and original using a 20GB hard drive. Where did Seagate take the contest? MySpace, of course.
The demographic for Seagate's contest is 14- to 28-year-olds, explains Colleen Rodriguez, senior manager in corporate communications, and that's why the company turned to MySpace.
"Seagate is trying to find out what that demographic wants, and what it needs," she says.
As the social networking space is relatively new, some companies are reluctant to dive in as the ROI is largely unproven on a grand scale. After all, one company's realistic business tool is another company's passing fad. But the interactive nature of most efforts means that even in the short term, some feedback can easily be gained.
Asked to estimate Seagate's ROI on its contest, for example, Rodriguez says that she does not have figures yet, as the contest ends November 15, but in one week the site had received 1,500 hits.
Marketers, technology, and products are by no means the only types of organizations using social networking to advance their causes. Charities are also using the sites to their advantage.
Porter Novelli client the American Cancer Society, for example, used SL to auction off a car, hold a "Relay for Life" charity race, and gather a community.
"It is really powerful," says Paul Vogelzang, director of Persuasive Technology at PN's DC office. "Reaching those consumers is a difficult, fragmented process," but in his experience, he adds, people are more intense about their causes in SL.
"What we are seeing is if you support a cause off-line, or are an advocate or believer, that on-line support comes out in a very big way."
That these social networking sites are becoming an avenue for PR is just an extension of media, rather than a new frontier, say those who have used it.
Vogelzang says that what has changed is the medium, but not the message.
"The whole social networking thing is wrapped up in the buzz; about MySpace, YouTube, etc., but it's been going on for a long time," he says. "People were talking before and people are talking now. But now they are using podcasts or webcasts."
The DL on SL
Digital virtual world Second Life is growing rapidly. "The statistics are constantly changing," says Tim Wheatcroft, VP at the San Diego office of SL's newly minted AOR, Lewis Global PR.
As of the morning of October 17, there were 963,206 residents. "But this will likely jump to over a million by the end of October - it can grow by 20,000 in a day," Wheatcroft said on that day. And just proving how fast it is growing, just two days later, on October 19, SL was home to 1,029,965 residents.
According to Lewis, the median age of residents is 32. Gender is almost down the middle: 55% men and 45% women. And adding to its global presence, 54% of the residents are from outside the US.
Brands in SL:
Concerts in SL:
First-ever in-world performance
One Big Weekend music festival
Played a fundraising show for STAND UP Against Poverty
Concert is in production
Scheduled for end of October