Why So Many Organizations Struggle for Success in Virtual Worlds

Palomar_002-712712One of the most interesting and
controversial discussions currently taking place amongst the virtual
world cognoscenti is also one of the most vexing for the companies and
government agencies hoping to capitalize on the growing communication
power of virtual worlds.

Despite the best efforts of
developers like Cisco, the Department of Energy and a mix of other
public and private organizations, many more corporate/government Second
Life installations fail than survive and thrive.

Pixels and Policy takes a look at why.

A Feast for Virtual
Eyes

NIC Inc
. is best known as the company
behind dozens of state government websites. You know those countless
labyrinthine portals you click through to pay your speeding ticket online?
Thank NIC. 

As it
turns out, NIC decided to expand its business by promoting its e-government
solutions through an expansive and beautiful Second Life island.
 

The
only problem? No one seems interested in discussing government IT solutions
when there’s a dance party only a teleport away. We spoke with NASA’s Learning
Technology Project Manager and Second Lifer Greyark Hightower about why so many
government islands are isolated museums. 

NIC’s
Second Life office is divided into three main regions: A marble-domed structure
resembling the U.S. Capitol, NIC’s virtual headquarters and a building called “Innovation
Hall.” What catches the eye is just how complete
the place looks.
  

Starving for Customers

State
flags are fluttering on either side of a paved walkway, and a virtual tour
guide application provides commentary on every region of the sim you enter. NIC
spared no expense on interactivity, as the myriad state information panels
attest.
 

But a
sim with two conference halls and a beautiful building or two won’t make a
difference to Second Life users. “Most orgs like the idea of having a Second
Life island,” Hightower says, “but they don’t budget or plan on having staff
in-world. They’re just pixilated museum pieces.”
 

Hightower,
who heads up NASA’s seven Second Life locations, has a point. NIC’s island is
vacant except for a few curious eyes that quickly teleport away. There aren’t
even any company representatives to welcome potential customers.
 

This
is a problem most corporate sims have. Take NASA, he says. “If no one from NASA
is at the sim, why should a visitor stay?” Hightower argues that companies and
governments are viewing sims the wrong way. Instead of viewing them as
self-evident tourist attractions, islands should be run “like a store,” with
staff always on duty.
 

Info
portals with data on state populations won’t matter if there are no
professionals to personalize the experience. If companies want Second Life eyes
to remain focused on their facilities, they should take a note from overflowing
dance clubs and offer a continuous flow of interesting events and giveaways. 

A Failure to Communicate

We've written about how companies like American Apparel just don't seem to understand the nature of marketing in the Metaverse.
Real-world companies develop static installations and expect users to
visit them out of sheer brand loyalty. What they find is little more
than a "curiosity bump" in foot traffic, followed by a flat-line.

This
is because virtual consumers want to be engaged. Corporations seeking
to open installations in Second Life would do well to first create a
library of engaging content to be rolled out over the course of a year.
This will likely require a full-time content team responsive to
changing trends and fashion memes in-world. Few companies are willing
to shell out for this, and attempts to build a presence on the cheap
ask for failure.

Developing an
online presence is increasingly important, as consumer trends shift
away from old advertising outlets like television. Companies need a presence in virtual worlds
in order to tap a growing market of consumers with disposable income,
but few seem to have any clue how to market. Second Life is littered
with the empty husks of corporate failure.

Casual browsers of the Second Life landscape don't need to look very hard to find corporate sites in a state of disrepair. Cisco's virtual hospital is now a ghost town that gives away a creepy free ID tag to anyone who steps through the busted doors. Reuters also has a mothballed office for its short-lived foray into virtual news, InfoWorld's article notes.

Most
interestingly, several major government operations sit in various
states of completion, their projects indefinitely mothballed due to a
mix of economic recession and general disinterest. The Department of Energy's otherwise impressive island is little more than abandonware now, and users can enjoy the experience of having an entire government energy facility all to themselves.

Changing Course for Corporate Success

Even the Navy's project –
complete with nuclear submarines and some cool lookout points – is
doomed to the footnotes of Second Life history. In over a dozen visits this week, no one was ever there. Its foot traffic hardly ranks in Second Life's search feature. 

For
corporations and ambitious government bureaucrats, every business is an
island. It'll take quite a bit more than a compelling initial build to
keep foot traffic and user interest going and growing. Perhaps
companies and agencies should take a page from some of Second Life's
more successful discussion sims. Pooky Amsterdam's Studio Dome attracts
a consistent and growing crowd through a variety of constantly changing
in-world television shows. The same goes for Metanomics.

Another option for corporations
or agencies bent on developing a virtual presence could be to go their
own way by developing a standalone virtual platform focused on their
project or company. After struggling through Second Life for years, IBM focused resources on its web.alive-based virtual conferencing center.
Cisco followed suit. Sure, the web.alive platform may be more
restrictive than Second Life, offering only a few avatar customization
options and a limited scope of exploration, but it achieves the goals
IBM can't meet in Second Life. That should be a major gauge of success.

As virtual platforms become an
increasingly important part of business conferencing and prototyping,
companies like IBM are also discovering that there are more options
than operating solely in Second Life. This could be the major
revolution in corporate virtual communication – a move away from some
of the big social players towards more specialized, single-purpose
worlds. That's not a bad thin

12 thoughts on “Why So Many Organizations Struggle for Success in Virtual Worlds”

  1. 1. You’re right about why some businesses are failing in SL. There’s a problem if there’s a lack of involvement, and there’s a problem if it isn’t integrated with other forms of social media marketing.
    2. Your statement about IBM is grossly inaccurate. While IBM did this, they are way, way more invested in Second Life, SLEnterprise, and OpenSim initiatives. What you wrote is at best misleading, and at worst, not true.
    3. You fail to cite any number of positive marketing and outreach experiences in Second Life. What’s your objective here? Isn’t it enough that people like Sibley, Clay Shirkey and Wired Magazine throw Second Life under the bus? If you want to convince people that they need to do things differently in Second Life, you can’t just be negative – no one’s going to find Second Life appealing in that light at all.

  2. I have to agree with Hiro above on item 2 – it’s a bit of a misrepresentation to measure IBM’s initiatives in the same manner as (say) American Apparel, as they have dramatically different objectives.
    What you do touch on that makes this article of value, is the fact that most of these organizations fail to adapt their usual techniques (in marketing, outreach, etc) to this new medium.
    In this sense, these lessons aren’t much different from the ones we learned in the first “Web 1.0” evolution: You can’t just paste your “business as usual” onto such a dramatically new medium. You have to become a part of it (and its community), and offer value in the audience’s measure – first – before you can even begin to think about how to engage them. And when you do engage them, it will be in an entirely new form.
    One way I illustrate this is by asking what Facebook replaced in your regular life. There was no “real world” equivalent of Facebook – a paper book that friends wrote in, with constant updates, images, references to other materials. The concept is nonsensical, and impossible. Facebook is a /brand new/ thing, for a new medium. So it is with virtual worlds: You need, literally, brand new things.

  3. Maxwell —
    Im not arguing that there are no companies that have found success in
    Second Life. But the ones that have found it predominantly by
    understanding that their real-world marketing plans werent going to
    work in virtual spaces. Both companies made significant and necessary
    changes before entering into the virtual environment. Companies that
    can adapt like that will, of course, thrive.

  4. Again, someone writing about Second Life as if it’s one giant offer.
    Swinging between subjects without definition.
    The world of Second Life is not just one great big world. The problem is, people who are in the public facing world of SL, like yourself, don’t know what is happening behind you.
    Second Life Enterprise and private grids are in abundance. With Linden Lab, telling us they have over 14,000 companies/organizations. The problem is, a lot of these companies are off in closed environments. Just because it’s not open to the public, it doesn’t mean they have left. From all accounts, there are more companies in SL than ever before.
    Hindsight, easy to pour scorn on America Apparel and the early brands in Second Life. But the fact you’ve mentioned all their names, means they succeeded. Still milking the PR. The fact this was also 3/4 years ago. There was a lot of good projects, nice content and interesting ideas. Again, easy to say it was wrong.
    I work freelance for a UK based company, they have clients that our household names. What they’re are doing in SL is private, behind closed off spaces, running meetings, collaboration and training. It’s private and secure, protecting their ideas, content and, more importantly, their employees.
    Arguably, the fact that SL can handle small contained groups, makes it perfect for these types of projects.
    B2B projects are big. You’re just not aware of them, as they’re not open to our public eyes.

  5. @Yeo, that should be 1400 organizations, not 14,000. Still, pretty impressive.
    I agree with the basic “people, not prims” model for success in Second Life. Not ‘if we build it they will come,’ but ‘if we are here, they will join us.’
    So far, the most consistently demonstrated value of virtual worlds has been for events, not for static content. The real magic will start when people find better ways to integrate the most creative content (think NPIRL) into live events.

  6. @Robert, perhaps more research, I just found this:
    IBM currently offers a secure version of Second Life, and claims that almost 14,000 customers are using the service.
    Again, another example of an SLer not knowing what is happening, IBM are all over this. Robert dig deeper, this is just one company, not even LL!
    So how many?

  7. Thanks to all for pointing out the inaccuracies in this article. It is actually pretty funny to see everyone talking/speculating about what IBM is (or isn’t doing). Why don’t you go watch clips from the recent PBS Frontline documentary and companion web site called Digital Nation to hear directly from IBM’ers. Start here – http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/interviews/legoues.html Then go watch Chapter 7 of the full show- http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/digitalnation/view/
    note that none of the success discussed in the documentary is about SL the public consumer grid- it is all about what happens behind the firewall, where employees can hold secure private meetings with people who have real names!
    @yeo- I don’t think IBM has ever said they had 14,000 customers using secure version of SL- maybe internal users, but not customers- SLE is only still in beta…

  8. Karen-
    To be honest, I was more than a bit underimpressed by the Digital Nation project. Felt they didn’t really cover much new ground on it.
    Looking at IBM, I’ve had a great opportunity to see firsthand the activities and progress they’re making through the AVAYA web.alive environment. Several important meeting and collaboration functions have and are being moved there, away from SL. That’s not to say IBM is failing in SL, just that its popularity is declining compared to more made-to-order environments.
    That said, I still think SL Enterprise is a potentially revitalizing idea for the platform, as Yeo said.

  9. Advertising for LL’s Enterprise product line? Wouldn’t want those employees getting attracted to that dance hall that never existed next door would we?

  10. I think what Second Life needs at this moment is good press coverage of recent success stories. The SL2.0 platform can really ignite a renaissance of SL… with some good press.
    The unique feture of SL compared to other platform is user created content which, while is not interesting for many users, is very interesting for many others. I think a successful SL project must leverage user created content.
    My current recommendations:
    – Second Life for a mass market metaverse – but only for those clients who are brave enough to ignore the bad press, and who take time to understand it.
    – Teleplace for professional collaboration.
    – web.alive as a web-based rich multiuser VR frontend.
    All 3 platforms are suitable for e-learning, with different angles.

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