I have been “avatarred”. And it is not pleasant. Every time anyone recognises my likeness in the grotesque Second Life image that was created for me, I take it as an affront. I am horrified by how many people do.
But it was a necessary step if I was to explore Second Life, the online virtual world, on a mission to discover what on earth big business is doing in there.
For the uninitiated, Second Life started out in 2003 as just another “massively multi-player online role-playing game” and entered 2007 as a multinational corporation online collaboration tool.
Founded by Linden Lab, of San Francisco, all it requires for participation is a computer, a sufficiently low barrier to entry to have attracted plenty of individuals. The more recent presence of big business is not universally welcomed by the indigenous population but, for now, the giants are tolerated. After all, there is a seemingly limitless landscape in which to avoid each other.
For companies, this is no game: they are there to make money. To do that they are investing time and money – but in what? And what are they getting out of it?
I asked IBM and observed Ian Hughes, one of its “metaverse evangelists” (he swaggers around Second Life as an avatar called “epredator” – see below), and I took part in a forum organised by PA Consulting Group.
For the latter, my avatar, created courtesy of PA, joined a small group plus virtual film crew to visit four companies’ Second Life properties to view the various approaches.
Achim Müllers, who heads the car company’s Second Life presence, showed us BMW’s predominantly blue and white virtual buildings, surrounded by water.
He explained: “Our main goals were to explore. We feel this is a very interesting platform in terms of consumer-generated content at its best. The 3D side gives something that’s been missing, plus there is interaction. We want to talk and discuss. And we want to communicate our clean energy concept. Second Life is a good place to do this.”
BMW is finding it a challenge integrating its Second Life activities with other marketing channels. “But there are several touchpoints,” said Mr Müllers. “For example, in the whole area of interaction and linking real-life communities with Second Life communities. For market research it is valuable feedback.”
Second Life costs come from BMW’s marketing budget but there is no immediate expectation of return on investment: “We have a long-term approach to costs and RoI. We have qualitative goals, to expand and develop our presence.”
The Dutch bank’s Second Life premises are calm and green, with trees gently swaying. Daan Jitta, a senior vice-president, took me up in the company’s “helivator” – a disc-like lift.
Why was Second Life important to the bank? “It could be important in the future and we need to learn about it. It’s a medium to communicate with clients, and employees and prospective employees. We get lots of feedback and it puts us in close touch with our customers.”
Recruitment is one area it has experimented with: “We held a job interview session, which was quite an experience. People are more willing to be themselves. It’s easier for them to express themselves – it’s their avatar not them who says something.”
ABN Amro tries to draw people to its Second Life property by holding events: “We like events,” said Mr Jitta. “You have to organise events regularly. We ran an event around the World Tennis Tournament in Rotterdam.” This featured former player and now tournament director, Richard Krajicek, chatting with visitors to ABN’s Second Life tournament island via his avatar. “It was very successful,” said Mr Jitta.
Again, the company has no targets for return on its invesment.
The mobile phone operator takes a different approach. Its virtual buildings are bold and bright – some might say garish – and include a sound garden where music plays when visitors stand on pink patches on the ground.
I found Kay Hoffman representing the company there and he explained that Vodafone was focusing on consumers and their experiences: “This is where our customers are and we have to be there. It’s part of our marketing mix and part of our integrated communications programme.
“Our aims are to learn from people and to add value to give back to the community. The idea is to let people experience the brand, so our area is colourful and playful and uses audio and video devices. We use it to learn what people want.
“We draw people in by doing something for the residents – with vending machines giving away goodies. We’re not selling – it’s about broad experience online.
“There needs to be some return on investment eventually but this is a long-term project and we are just looking at the potential.”
PA’s buildings are spacious, light and glassy, and feature displays aimed at different types of visitor, using media such as video and interactive case studies.
There is a “smart house” on the far side of a lake offering an “interactive experience that explains future home technologies” and is “playful”, reflecting the diverse aims the company has for its Second Life presence.
Claus Nehmzow, a member of PA’s management group, said it began with a marketing presence to complement its corporate website, with recruitment becoming a second objective. Both have worked “really well”, he said. As a recruiting tool, it allowed anonymous contact, he explained.
PA has also created private islands that are used for experimentation. “For example, we have a model of a bank branch that allows us to experiment with scenarios around user experience – how people would interact with components of the bank branch and bank staff. We use it to demonstrate how you can use the Second Life medium for modelling expensive and time-consuming real-life investment.”
PA has found feedback to be diverse and outspoken: “We had a group dialogue with about 20 people. The people could be from around the world offering different perspectives. Comments are comparable to real-life comments but it changes group dynamics – instant messaging is more democratic, less hierarchical.”