A Second Life for Your Ad Campaigns

Where consumers go, businesses and advertisers follow. With all the attention focused on Second Life, it’s no wonder that huge corporations (from Coca Cola on down) have been establishing a presence in this digital world. Is it time for your advertising campaign to start reaching out to avatars?

Never look at a new opportunity to expand your business without first doing your homework. Second Life, according to Wikipedia, “is a privately owned, partly subscription-based 3-D virtual world, made publicly available by San Francisco-based Linden Lab and founded by former RealNetworks CTO Philip Rosedale.” Unlike other online virtual worlds such as EverQuest or World of Warcraft, there is no specific “goal” to achieve in Second Life; users (known as Residents) create avatars, hang out, interact with other users, and explore the world.

There are other important differences between Second Life and other online games: all of the content is created by the users. Residents can not only create objects such as watches, clothes, buildings, and so on, but they can buy and sell them for Linden dollars. Premium subscribers (those who pay a fee rather than maintain a free account) receive a certain number of Linden dollars per week regardless of what they do. Linden dollars can be exchanged for real U.S. dollars. The exchange rate is typically such that a premium user who doesn’t spend or earn any Linden dollars over the course of a year will come close to breaking even one way or another on the yearly subscription fee.

These cold facts about the set up of Second Life do little justice to the world, unless you have a vivid imagination. Residents are living actual second lives, selling digital items to each other. You can buy virtual real estate to build up, get a virtual architect to help you, create artworks or other items to sell (such as clothing, jewelry, even spaceships!), and more. You can even get financial or legal help in Second Life – or an education, as a number of universities have started offering classes there.

It should come as no surprise, then, that a number of real-life companies and other organizations have embraced Second Life as another way to reach their target market. Intel, Reuters, Sony BMG, American Apparel, Wired, Pontiac, Amazon, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Nike and others own and maintain their own property in Second Life for avatars to explore. With larger companies paying attention to this space, shouldn’t you?

In the few years of Second Life’s existence, it has attracted one million residents. Of these, it is estimated that about half are not from the U.S. While you don’t have to be rich to be in Second Life, the mere fact that it’s a virtual online world implies a few things about its residents: a certain minimum level of affluence and leisure time, access to a computer and a desire to use it for fun (therefore a certain level of technological savvy), and a real comfort with online interactions. These points tend to imply a certain mindset: an openness to new ideas, a willingness to experiment, curiosity, creativity, maybe even a desire for “thrills” in a “safe” environment (the media has, after all, made much of the more salacious opportunities in Second Life).

Please note that these are educated guesses; I don’t doubt for a second that you could go to a marketing firm in Second Life to get a much better idea of the virtual world’s demographics. Yes, there are marketing firms in Second Life – even clueless marketing firms. A company named Crayon launched there recently, claiming to be “the first agency to launch themselves in Second Life,” thus alienating many Second Life residents and business owners. If you want to avoid generating the kind of ill will they did, you will need to spend some time studying the landscape.

You could do worse than to follow the CDC’s example. John Anderton, employed with the CDC, first learned about Second Life when exploring other ways to reach people with the CDC’s messages. He created an avatar with a meaningful name – Hygeia Philo. The first name is the Greek muse of health, while Philo means “lover of,” so she is literally a “lover of health” which is appropriate for an in-world spokesperson for the CDC. He’s quite honest when approached in Second Life about who he really is and what he does, freely granting interviews to the press.

Birthdays are significant, so Anderton waited until July 13 before formally launching Hygeia into Second Life, since that was also the sixtieth birthday of the CDC. Indeed, here’s a point he makes that is worth keeping in mind for companies who use avatars in Second Life: “I don’t see Hygeia Philo as an alternate John Anderton, rather I see her more as the face of the Agency that I am working with to disseminate health information.”

Explaining how to buy an island or build your own store and area is beyond the scope of this article. But it’s worth nothing that Second Life has its own search engine to help residents find whatever they’re looking for in the virtual world. Where there’s a search engine, you can optimize for it. While optimizing for Second Life is a little different from optimizing for Google, the two do have certain parallels.

Take title tags, for example. You might not have them in the sense of having a web page in Second Life, but when you set up a virtual shop you do get a virtual location, and you’re supposed to give it a title. If you think of the title like a title tag, you’ll realize that you should include some keywords so that residents will be able to find your store. David Berkowitz used the example of buying his Second Life avatar a pair of sneakers. He knew he wanted Reeboks, but what if a resident wants sneakers and doesn’t know where to go? Since Reebok only includes its brand name in its title, it wouldn’t come up in the search engine. A title like “Reebok custom sneakers” would serve the business much better.

You can also create a description for your virtual store. Here is another good place to use keywords. Specifically, here is where you should briefly describe your goods and/or services. If someone might use a slang term to find something you sell, consider using that as well; American Apparel included the word “hoodie” in the description of its virtual store’s merchandise, so it comes up for that term.

As in real life, residents can use more than one search engine in Second Life. There is one main one, but there are others, trying to improve on what’s already on offer. Berkowitz alludes to Second411, which encourages Second Life store owners to list all their items for sale. Residents who use that search application can find more places that offer what they’re looking for than they can with just the main search tool.

So what can you expect from this strange new marketing arena? Chris Smith gives a good picture of it in his blog: “Imagine online users spending more and more time in this virtual world space, instead of in chat rooms and forums and such. Imagine traveling to a building with people in it who will verbally tell you about the information you’re seeking, instead of typing a keyword into a flat page. Instead of doing your product research on a company website, you might go into their virtual store and question their virtual salesman until you’re certain of what you want to buy. A three dimensional space is far more compelling to people.”

Think of all the things you can do in a three dimensional space. The CDC held a community health fair – and there are plenty of folks who will help you with Second Life events to raise awareness about your company. Also keep in mind that this is a three dimensional virtual space, which means you can change it quickly in response to your own needs (such as real life promotions, news, or other happenings). Remember that the people you’re reaching are three dimensional too; they have first lives, and even if you gear your offerings to their avatars, you have a chance to be even more compelling if you can offer them something they can use in real life as well.

In fact, it’s very important that you keep that community in mind. People can get very tired of advertising; at least one blogger commented that she wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the original residents move on to create a new world where advertising is verboten. If you would be loved, know your audience and serve its needs. As one resident wrote in his blog in reference to Crayon’s arrogance in claiming to be first, “It’s not about being first, it’s not about what you say you are going to do, it’s what you actually do. It’s about execution! It’s about substance!” So make sure you do your homework.

Finally, if you think that this is just a fad that will go away, think again. It might, but so far it seems to have legs that may even go beyond any one company. According to Anderton, “If SL fails, for some reason, the movement of persons into online congregate social settings will probably continue to expand, and understanding how to reach these audiences will continue to be important.” So it would be wise to start learning now.

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