Communicating In An Alternate Reality: Second Life Paves The Way

The beginning of a new year can be a time to reflect, both in personal and professional contexts. This is the traditional time to ask what to do with your self, your waistline, your business, your life ... and your second life? If you think such a concept could be possible only in some form of alternate reality, you're right - and wrong. Just when you thought things couldn't get more multi-dimensional in the world of communications, another option arises, and this time it's making a splash of monumental proportions. It's Second Life, the peer-to-peer, conceptual, virtual world that is entirely built, owned and maintained by its residents; that is, people who set up an account (a basic one is free, with premium membership starting at $9.95 a month), create an identity and interact with other "avatars." But this isn't your teenager's SIM City game: it's a real, evolving world in which business transactions are completed, products are created, bought and sold, and Second Life currency can be transferred into U.S. dollars. Most recently, it's a world where PR is finding a place. Imagine being able to test a concept without fear of failure, to market a product and get consumer feedback without ever investing in production, to bring employees and clients all over the world together in one place without a single mention of passports and plane tickets. That's exactly what executives at Text 100 Public Relations, a global PR consultancy serving the tech industry, did when they opened shop, so to speak, in this online medium in August 2006 to test the waters. "It's always important to understand new publics, and Second Life is a new public," says Georg Kolb, executive vice president of Text 100. "It is peer-to-peer networks. It's a new global platform for collaboration. Second Life is social networking in 3-D." If the benefits of such a forward-thinking, nontraditional communications medium are still not obvious, consider this: Text 100 led the way among PR firms joining the ubiquitous community, but they first used it as an internal communications vehicle to celebrate the agency's 25th anniversary. By creating a "space" in Second Life that mimics the company's usual office setting, and then streaming video content and giving employees the opportunity to create identities (known as "avatars" in Second-Life lingo), the communications executives built a complete forum in which employees from all over the world could enter and interact with one another. Conversations happened in real time, employees who had never met in person could interact despite the geographic distance between them, and the firm introduced the mechanism in an interactive, non-threatening way. "It's a more engaging, interactive meeting room than other virtual platforms," says Kolb, who notes that the concept of virtual spaces like Second Life has existed for years. But the business and communications implications don't stop there. Handfuls of huge, Fortune 500 companies have purchased "land" in Second Life and begun using it as a testing ground for new concepts and upcoming products. For example, when Starwood Hotels created a new brand concept - Aloft - it launched it first in Second Life to solicit feedback from users, who could enter a virtual hotel and examine the layouts, amenities, room sizes, etc. Starwood execs could monitor how long people spent in each area of the hotel and ask about various ways to improve their offering before wasting dollars on real-world models. As a result, Second Life is gaining buy-in from businesses at a near-alarming rate, and communications professionals must acknowledge yet another digital trend, and a unique one at that. Responding to the naysayers who think Second Life is nothing more than a game, Text 100 CEO Aedhmar Hynes offers this rationale on her blog: "Second Life is not a game, simply because its use is not determined by any game script. But also the impressive investments of major corporations such as IBM, Sony BMG, Dell, Sun, Toyota, Nissan, Starwood and Reuters clearly indicate that they don't view it as a playground. They are there for many different business reasons, like getting closer to customers, better understanding digital natives, accessing a new tech-savvy audience, testing new offerings, showcasing company innovation and more. With IBM's Sam Palmisano making his appearance in Second Life, virtual worlds have been visibly put on the business agenda." Text 100 PR executives began incorporating Second Life into its portfolio of offerings for clients once they had tested it internally. They helped the MacArthur Foundation with a digital learning program, which was launched at a press event with panel discussions in New York and a simulcast in Second Life. Many universities already hold classes in Second Life, making the virtual world an appropriate venue to announce an initiative on digital learning. With these success stories as a backdrop, communications professionals can explore the limitless possibilities of Second Life and use it to bring added value to their organizations. But, as is always the case with media new and old, it is wise to consider a few caveats: *Remember it is not a game: Just as Hynes asserted on her blog, Second Life is not a game, and it shouldn't be treated like one. As Kolb says, "It doesn't follow a script. There are no rules of engagement, nothing to achieve, nothing to win. People create content themselves and build their own environments." With this in mind, PR executives must have one objective in mind: to understand the audience. Second Life is a communications vehicle, not a playground; likewise, just as in the blogosphere, there is an inherent loss of control, as participants build their own content and control their own interactions in relative lawlessness. *Be aware of the demographics: The most recent statistics (December 30, 2006) indicate that there are 2,345,201 residents in Second Life, and there is a total supply of 1,326,496,881 Second-Life dollars (which can be converted into USD). According to Google Talk's statistics (from March 2006), 43% of users are women, the average age is 32, and $5 million US worth of virtual transactions are conducted per month among its users. Approximately 75,000 people log in each day and spend an average of three hours there. PR professionals need to be aware of the audience they will reach on Second Life, as it may not be appropriate for some industries. *Don't go to Second Life to replicate something you can do elsewhere: Kolb insists this is essential. "Use the tool to leverage its ability to create something new that doesn't exist in the real world," he says. "It can be a clumsy user interface, and not to be used to replicate efforts that could be done on another online platform. But, if you do something interesting in this virtual world, the right audience won't care how complicated the technology is." *Use Second Life to empower constituents: Perhaps the best feature of Second Life is its interactivity and its inclination toward external innovation and internal collaboration. PR practitioners should leverage its power to enable possible consumers to make changes to a product or to create something new. It creates a sense of community, and it lets the company or client test markets and get a glimpse into possible glitches that may occur once the product is launched in the "real world." With its ability to share a 3-D version of a new product with the public, receive immediate feedback during the development process, hold real-time virtual meetings, review PowerPoint slides and watch live streaming video, and interact with brands, Second Life is a communications tool that can reach internal and external audiences. Its unique implications for the business world may make some hesitant to participate, but the rewards, so far, seem promising. "It's about creating changes and enriching your real life," Kolb says. "It is not a platform to escape the real world." Not yet, anyway. Contact: Georg Kolb,

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