DIGITAL DOMAINS ONLINE: A second coming for virtual worlds

When online worlds such as Second Life began, they captured the public's imagination. But the initial stampede of brands into 'immersive spaces' has slowed. Polly Devaney investigates

This time last year, the buzz around Second Life, the virtual world that enables people to create ano­ther version of themselves, was palpable.

Back then, IT research outfit Gart­­ner predicted that 80 per cent of active internet users would have some kind of a ‘second life' in a virtual world by 2011. The media were full of breathless
accounts of big-name brands claiming to be the first in their sector to set up virtual shop. These firms were riding the crest of a virtual wave, blazing trails in this new world by boosting their
profiles and pulling in hordes of new customers.

The current reality
Fast forward a year and the virtual landscape is looking bleak. Shops are empty, ‘closed until further notice' signs hanging from their virtual doors. American Apparel, one of the first high-profile brands to open premises, pulled out after a poor summer of virtual trading, as did Pontiac and Amer­ica Online.

Is this the end of a phenomenon that never quite was, or is there hope for a second coming of Second Life?

One PR agency that is not selling the virtues of virtual life to its clients is onl­ine specialist Immediate Fut­ure. ‘We do not recommend it to our clients as we do not think it is the place for consumer goods and lifestyle brands,' says MD Katy Howell.

CNET ‘When Second Life first started and brands got inv­olved there was lots of chatter - but I don't think it is creating that word of mouth buzz anymore.'

Howell believes there are other, more effective ways to communicate with key influencers. Aside from that, it is a costly way to experiment.

‘Nobody I work with really talks about Second Life anymore,' she says. ‘There was a certain first mover adv­antage but nothing much has really come of it.' Howell points to the technical problems around Second Life, and the fact that only 60 people can be in one place at one time, as significant stumbling blocks to effective comms.

However, in terms of hard facts on Second Life, it could be argued that the trend is still positive. The number of hours spent ‘in world' by residents has more than doubled over recent times, leaping from 10.8 million in January 2007 to 28.3 million in January 2008.

The total population of Second Life over the same time frame almost quadrupled, to 12.2 million.

Brand boosts
Markettruths, a research firm that specialises in Second Life, ran a study into brands that jumped on the bandwagon last year. It found the number of people rating brands' involvement in Second Life as ‘mostly positive' grew from 49 per cent to 60 per cent during the first nine months of 2007.

Markettruths MD Mary Ellen Gordon believes this is because the original fears around big brands ‘squeezing out the little guys' has not happened.
Gordon also thinks word of mouth recommendation is alive and well in Second Life, with over half of people making recommendations to other residents, and half considering buying as a result.

The firm's research also found nine per cent of Second Life users bought something in real life, and eight per cent bought in Second Life, after getting ‘in-world recommendations' - something Gordon believes is ‘pretty impressive'.

In her experience, the PR campaigns that achieve high awareness levels are the ones that have a big, sustained presence, such as ‘Second Fest' - a three-day music festival run jointly by The Guardian and Intel last summer, that had virtual gigs over five stages and even included portaloos and mud.

Another PR agency that has not given up on Second Life is Press Dispensary. The agency has an office in Blue Horizon, a Second Life business park. It has worked on a virtual coffee morning for Macmillan and the launch of the drinks brand Oasis in Second Life.

Press Dispensary MD Robert Shepherd says being there is beneficial. ‘We have made a profit from our Second Life inv­olvement,' claims Shepherd. ‘People discover us there and see our expertise. The virtual park we are in has a nightclub and bar area, so we get passing trade that we would not usually get.'

Dotcom similarities
Shepherd admits that when big brands pull out of Second Life it does cause a ripple of ‘I told you so' reactions. But like many observers, Shepherd bel­ieves recent failures can be compared to the mistakes that led the dotcom bubble to burst in 2000 - the firms that struggled were the ones that overspent too quickly without thinking the process through.

Vic Keegan, technology journalist at The Guardian, says his feeling is that corporations are giving up on Second Life as a brand extension exercise bec­ause there are not enough regularly returning consumers.

‘They no longer get cheap headlines in the media for selling their wares there,' adds Keegan. That said, he bel­ieves wiser companies are still building a Second Life presence, because of ‘real benefits arising from collaboration and low-carbon international meetings'.

The next phase
Virtual worlds are certainly evolving and it is important to remember that Second Life is not the only virtual life out there. Other online worlds such as The Manor, There and Playdo are alm­ost as established, and new technologies to increase audience participation - the key problem for brands trying to create big events in virtual worlds - are being developed all the time.

Second Life may not be the media darling it once was, but this is not unusual for a web-based concept that generates a huge raft of early publicity. The brands seeking to piggy-back the initial buzz were always likely to tire of their commitments once the novelty value wore off.

But with visitor numbers increasing and IT developers working flat out to iron out logistical kinks, virtual worlds such as Second Life look here to stay.

-- Sixty per cent men, 40 per cent women
-- The majority of users are aged 25-34
-- Thirty-five per cent of avatars are from the US, with the next biggest population being Germans at 8.2 per cent, then British at 7.6 per cent
(source: Second Life: Jan 2008)
--Many regular Second Lifers spend an average of 20 hours a week ‘in world'. These users spend less than half the time watching television than non-users of Second Life
(source: Markettruths: March 2008)

PR agency Cow entered Second Life in June 2007, launching a Virtual Worlds Consultancy on ‘Cow Island'. Cow co-founder Dirk Singer admits he ‘did not really see the point' of a standard office, so asked their developer to build a nature reserve with only a small part given over to
company space.

The island has four domes, although these are currently empty as Cow has decided it has too much space for its needs, and is in the process of parcelling out part of the island to build tree houses for residents to rent.

Coe IslandCow uses the space for internal meetings and as a showcase for clients, although Singer says he would not recommend Second Life to any clients simply wanting to sell virtual versions of real-life products.

One of Cow's key PR activities in Second Life was for Vauxhall Corsa in mid-2007. The ‘Corsa Guide to getting a (Second) Life' was designed to help new residents of Second Life find the ‘hottest, coolest, and most fun places' to visit in the virtual world.

Just over 2,000 votes were cast by residents in ‘Corsa kiosks' in Second Life and the resulting guide
was accessed by 25,000 people online.

While Singer admits that a presence in Second Life has not resulted in any leads from clients or activities beyond The Corsa Guide, he says the collaboration element of Second Life makes it worthwhile.

‘I have met creatives and designers from the US, Australia and New Zealand - and even London - that I would not have done otherwise,' he explains.

Singer believes it is a long-term investment and is vital for Cow to be there for the future. ‘We will see massive growth in the medium, even if not in Second Life per se.'

In August 2006, Text 100 became the first PR agency to set up in Second Life. The three-storey office on a private island features a welcome centre, an information centre and an amphitheatre.

Although it is not unusual to find it completely deserted, as there is no staffing rota, the firm still believes it was a smart move. Text 100 COO Andrew McGregor says the rationale for entry was varied but much of it came down to being able to ‘experiment and explore'. ‘You cannot advise clients on these spaces if you have not had your own experience,' says McGregor.

Text 100Since the opening, Text 100 has created virtual media spaces as add-ons to real world events and used it for global internal meetings. One of the most successful Text 100 events in Second Life was for the non-profit humanitarian MacArthur Foundation.

The agency ran a virtual extension of a real-life launch of a US$50m Digital Learning Programme. Within 72 hours more than 1,400 postings on the topic could be traced back to individual avatars who began blogging while attending the launch event in Second Life.

That may have been back in 2006, but Text 100 says activity has by no means wound down recently. For Text 100 client Cisco alone, it has organised 30 separate community building events over the past year. These are typically forums and attendees have included the chief executives of Cisco customers.

As to the future of Text 100 and Second Life, McGregor says the agency is ‘keen to see where the potential of immersive environments can go'.

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