Second Life Opens For Business

Toyota, Circuit City, Dell, Sears, and Adidas have set up shop in the Second Life virtual world. But their stores are empty. Can businesses find a place with any real-world payback in this fantasyland of overindulgence?

Alice LaPlante, Contributor

February 23, 2007

3 Min Read

Community Spirit
On one point, everyone agrees: Real-world businesses wanting to see any measure of success in Second Life are going to have to become part of-- and give freely to--the community.

"Companies need to investigate before they jump in ... try to understand what the community values, and how to give it to them," says Garrett French, a partner with Bold Interactive, a community marketing incubator. The first thing businesses must do is give up control, he says.

"You have to think of yourself as providing a kind of brand play dough, giving users the ability to manipulate your products and services according to how they fit within the community," French says. This idea can be frightening for major brands used to tightly controlling their message, he says.

(click image for larger view)Eerily quiet between presentations View the Second Lifeimage gallery

Companies must ask what utility they're giving users that they can't get from a conventional Web site, says Greg Lastowka, a professor at the Rutgers School of Law, who studies the legal and cultural relationships between virtual worlds and real life. "I don't see anything wrong with putting up virtual billboards or opening a virtual store in Second Life, but it comes down to ... how do you want to spend your overall marketing and advertising dollars, and what's the payoff? If the Second Life community simply ignores your billboards or your store, what's the point?"

One of the most disconcerting aspects of wandering through the beautiful but vacant commercial spaces of Second Life is that none of the major companies has bothered to "staff" its virtual space. The social part of the shopping experience is completely lacking.

Hiring and training employees to act as avatars to greet and guide visitors is a logical next step for businesses, says PARC's Ducheneaut, but a major change of mind-set is involved, and it will be labor-intensive. "You need these spaces to be warm and welcoming," he says. "This means there have to be avatars there at all times, and real human beings behind those avatars. This will require a tremendous commitment of resources."

Back to that penguin. As it turns out, it's a prominent Second Life blogger who goes by the name of Nobody Fugazi. In real life, he's a programmer, hence his genuine interest in Cisco products. "He's very cool, very funny, and we welcome him to our events," Renaud says.

In spite of the uncertainty Cisco and other companies face in Second Life, the risk of not getting in now is much greater than the risk of jumping into it too soon, he says. "We need to identify the hurdles as well as the opportunities," Renaud says, "and start working on them now."

Illustration by Ryan Etter

View the Second Life image gallery

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