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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Why Bother Marketing in Virtual Worlds?

After reading the press and public reaction to SecondLife you probably think, hmm someday all this will pay off for somebody but certainly not now and perhaps not for ten years. Why should my company bother with this virtual reality community thing when it may be years from becoming a real, significant marketplace? Your business needs to reach a customer base that may not become active in an online community like SecondLife for 5 years, if they ever enter the medium at all.

Decisions exactly like this made the rounds of corporate conference rooms throughout the 1990's. What are we doing about this Internet thing? Should we even try to sell our products on the Internet? Exactly how many people are using the Internet today? What are they using it for? Are people actually buying things on the Internet? Will they ever trust the Internet enough to use their credit cards on it? Maybe some people are using it in the U.S. but what about the rest of the world? Most internet connections are so slow it will never be very useful for more than text and small pictures of our products. Does this sound familiar to you?
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Belonging To A Community

Similar comments were tossed around by corporations discussing eBay, Google, iTunes, and then YouTube. It seems that innovations related to the Internet are becoming adopted by larger and larger audiences at an ever-increasing pace. Most of the successful new ideas depend on greater bandwidth and larger amounts of creative input. A key formula to each of these sites is that they allow many people and organizations to actively participate with few limitations. Finally, the users of a site must quickly begin to feel that they belong to a community.

The early Internet was a collection of community bulletin boards. America OnLine and Mr. Case built a business on this idea of community. The Internet has changed since those days but people still seek out sites that give them that feeling that they belong to something larger. MySpace is a perfect example of this long-standing web trend. Even little Wikipedia lets most everyone get involved.

Content Is King

For a web site to succeed it absolutely must keep users returning for more. To do this consistently, web sites must constantly provide new content. The demand for new content is so critical that most major web businesses do not depend solely on large teams of artists and developers. Sites like eBay, Flickr, YouTube, and SecondLife provide the space and leave the creative work to the user community.

eBay lets the whole world display the contents of their closets and their showrooms. A Google search will turn up the good, the bad, and the ugly, organized by the folks at Google, of course. iTunes may be tightly controlled by Apple Computer but any company that wants to sell their music on iTunes seems welcome. Nearly anything goes on YouTube but copyright restrictions are rapidly being implemented by their new owner.

SecondLife meets all these criteria. It draws the user back for more interaction. It is constantly changing. It allows users to create new content. It definitely gives the participants a sense that they belong to a community.

Will SecondLife Endure?

The bulletin boards of the early internet are almost gone now. The AOL Search concept evolved into a Yahoo search tool which became a Google advertising machine. E-mail is slowly being supplanted by Instant Messaging. SIM City, Entropia, Warcraft, ActiveWorlds, There, and others preceded SecondLife in the virtual space. Virtual worlds are rapidly evolving and maturing away from their massively multiplayer on-line game (MMOG) origins. Something will definitely come after SecondLife. That is the nature of the web.

Any business that is unsure about making an investment in virtual reality should rest assured that their efforts will not be in vain. Your marketing, sales, and perhaps even your new product development teams will be taking a step ahead of the competition simply by learning to move around in this new space. When competition to SecondLife appears, and be sure it will, it is likely that connections will be engineered. Instant Message (IM) services are a great example of this. At first you could only send an IM to friends on the same service like Yahoo or AOL Instant Messaging. Eventually market forces prevailed and IMs now traverse multiple platforms.

There are many reasons Jeffrey Bezos, Mitch Kapor, and Pierre Omidyar have invested in Linden Lab's brave new world. Return to this space to learn more ways your business can benefit from these new developments.

NOTE: This column is part of a series on new developments in virtual reality. The first article was Why Do Business In Second Life?

Other posts on SecondLife and the online games business:

Suicide, Murder, and Virtual Worlds

Why Bother Marketing in Virtual Worlds?
Why Do Business in SecondLife?
Virtual Reality in Second Life
India, Google, God, and Technology

Links:

The Washington Post on government use of avatars

Gawker post on SecondLife as a pyramid scheme

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