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5/1/2007
02:40 PM
Mitch Wagner
Mitch Wagner
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The NBA Provides A Lesson For Real-Life Companies On Doing Business In Second Life

I really wanted to hate the NBA Headquarters in Second Life. Dozens of real-life companies have started operations in Second Life, and only a few of them actually seem to understand how to do business in the virtual world. But, much to my disappointment (at first) and later, delight, the NBA really seems to get it, and it's built a Second Life area that will be appealing to geeky basketball fans.

I really wanted to hate the NBA Headquarters in Second Life. Dozens of real-life companies have started operations in Second Life, and only a few of them actually seem to understand how to do business in the virtual world. But, much to my disappointment (at first) and later, delight, the NBA really seems to get it, and it's built a Second Life area that will be appealing to geeky basketball fans.

Fans can come and play games with each other, watch a real-time 3-D diagram of NBA games as they're being played, get their pictures taken with the NBA trophy, watch clips of past playoffs and great games, and, of course, buy NBA virtual merchandise to trick out their avatars. I did a whole write-up, with screenshots, here.

The NBA and its Second Life partner, the Electric Sheep Co., get the key thing that real-life businesses need to understand about doing business in Second Life: It's all about connecting with customers and business partners. If your business is selling a real-life product, it's not enough to have duplicates of that product in the virtual world. Heck, it's not even necessary. It is important to have your staff on hand in Second Life to answer questions from, get feedback from, and get into discussions with customers and business partners.

The businesses that work best in Second Life are the ones where customers don't just feel like customers; they feel like part of a community. Professional sports organizations, like the NBA, are ideal for that; individual baseball and football teams would be even better. People have their identities tied up in being fans of the Yankees, Red Sox, or Chicago Cubs.

Cult TV shows and movies work great in Second Life. The Star Trek and Star Wars fan groups are two of the most active and creative in Second Life -- and they're completely unofficial. CBS Paramount Television and Lucasfilm (the respective owners of the Trek and Star Wars franchises) aren't even in Second Life. Likewise, when you wander around Second Life, you can see reproductions here and there of the Stargate from the TV series of the same name.

Cult computer products work great in Second Life, too. Apple users have a thriving community in Second Life, and a reproduction of an Apple store. As with the Star Wars and Trek fan groups, this is done without any official presence from the official company, in this case Apple, in Second Life.

We don't think about business-to-business products, like Cisco routers or Sun software and servers, as having fan groups. But people have invested their identities in them -- people make their careers out of being able to configure and maintain those products. Cisco understands that, as does Sun and IBM -- they all have strong presences in Second Life.

Retail businesses have a great opportunity in Second Life and haven't taken much advantage of it. The Circuit City store is typical of first-generation Second Life corporate areas -- a beautiful, deserted wasteland. Circuit City could be great in Second Life if it did it right. But it would have to have the store staffed with knowledgeable salespeople 24/7.

You may remember the buzzword "disintermediation" from the dot-com boom -- it's the idea that the Internet and big-box retail outlets eliminate salespeople and other middlemen by putting the customer in direct contact with the supplier. You don't go to a travel agent, you buy directly from Travelocity. You don't go to a stockbroker, you go to E-Trade. Well, Second Life presents an opportunity for reintermediation. In real life, people enjoy doing business with a skilled salesperson, and the same holds true in Second Life.

And in Second Life, you can get a 3-D look at the merchandise and get at least some idea of how big a 70-inch TV really is.

By the way, I'm indebted to my colleague Michael Singer for a brief, but enlightening, discussion of pro basketball. I'm completely clueless about sports myself. I said to Michael: Basketball is the one with the really tall guys in shorts, right? In particular, he suggested the headline.

Are you proud of what your real-life business is doing in Second Life? Let us know about it below, or send me an e-mail at mwagner@cmp.com.

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