We Gotta Have a Presence: Failing at Marketing in Second Life

Is it possible to create engaging branded experiences in Second Life which actually help your company sell product, or at least reinforce your customer’s perception of your brand?

In the August issue of WIRED, Frank Rose is pretty down on the opportunities in Second Life for consumer brands in the US trying to create interest. But the fact that some (even many) have failed to create interesting experiences shouldn’t prove that no one can.

Rose’s argument, in “How Madison Avenue Is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life” (which in the print magazine carried the headline “Lonely Planet – Second Life: It’s So Popular No One Goes There Anymore”), is that marketers are basically spending out of fear: fear of missing out on the next big thing, fear that traditional marketing and advertising methods are dying and nothing has yet come about to replace them. He writes near the beginning of the article:

Adrift in the uncharted sea that is Web 2.0 — YouTube, MySpace, social networking, user-generated content, virtual worlds — corporate marketers look at Second Life and see something to grab onto. At least 50 major companies have ventured into the virtual world to date, spending millions in the process. IBM has created a massive complex of adjoining islands dedicated to recruitment, employee training, and in-world business meetings. Coldwell Banker has opened a virtual real estate office. Brands like Adidas, H&R Block, and Sears have set up shop. CNET and Reuters have opened virtual bureaus there. It’s as if the moon suddenly had oxygen. Nobody wants to miss out.

And again towards the end:

What’s behind this stampede is not that hard to divine. “A terror has gripped corporate America,” says Joseph Plummer, chief research officer at the Advertising Research Foundation, an industry think tank. Plummer has been around Madison Avenue since the early ’60s, when modern advertising techniques materialized. “The simple model they all grew up with” — the 30-second spot, delivered through the mass reach of television — “is no longer working. And there are two types of people out there: a small group that’s experimenting thoughtfully, and a large group that’s trying the next thing to come through the door.” Second Life appeals to the latter — the ones who are afraid of missing out, who don’t consider half a million dollars to be a lot of money, and who haven’t figured out (or don’t want to admit) that Second Life is less than the bold new frontier it appears to be.

Marshall Sponder, in a blog post responding to Rose’s article, concedes that “the Second Life platform is immature in that it can’t handle large numbers of visitors on any spot, the grid is down way too often and the interface is still clunky,” but argues that “getting businesses to fail in Second Life is businesses copying their physical store in a Virtual World, rather than really coming up with something creative (even though more of the brands who have entered Second Life think they are being creative, they aren’t).”

In other words, it’s the rush to have a presence in Second Life, without really thinking about what it makes possible, that is leading to failure. This is analagous to companies rushing now to have a presence on Facebook, so convinced that they need to have an application (any old application will do) that they don’t think through the real potential of the platform(s) and risk being complete ignored, or worse.

Second Life shouldn’t be ingored by large brands, but they should start by being users first – something I suspect many fail to do – and talking to other users second. If you can’t find people (who you haven’t paid to say so) who think the idea is exciting and interesting, don’t bother.