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To refer to the Second Life "community" generally means its most active users, currently about550,000 people who go "in-world" an average of 40 hours a month. It comprises numeroussmaller communities, formed primarily around personal interests and activities. For this reason,the best entry point for outside companies is often through brands and products that alreadyattract Second Life users.The first relatively successful corporate-funded presence in Second Life was built for Showtime'spopular series The L Word. The site features recreated locations from the show where fans cancongregate and socialize. Using the capacity to stream QuickTime video into Second Life, "LWord Island" hosts regular episode viewing sessions -- a kind of virtual living room. The CWshow Gossip Girl took that a step further, creating a role-playing game where fans of the seriesbecome characters inspired by the show, sending scandalous text messages to each otherthrough their virtual cell phones. L Word Island attracts about 5,000 visits a week, while GossipGirl's virtual Manhattan garnered a reported 38,000 visits in its first three months.
Embracing the Fantastic
The worst mistake that would-be virtual world marketers make is assuming their Second Lifepresence should mirror the real world -- in other words, making their branded location look likea shopping mall. Some of the most successful grassroots locales play in the full spectrum of possibility: dystopian, Blade Runner-esque cities of the future, for example, or interactive artinstallations that seem like 3D dreamscapes. This is the essential eclecticism of the Second Lifeexperience -- what I call "bebop reality."Smart marketers will imagine their brands not as they are in the real world, but as they fitwithin this free-form play space. Among Second Life's most popular locales is "Greenies," agiant living room that makes avatars seem as small as ants. It's here that a British agencylaunched a campaign for its client, L'Oreal Paris, not as a traditional billboard, but ascustom-made virtual products discretely placed inside a lady's SUV-size purse. After the firstthree months, Second Life residents had snatched up 34,000 copies of L'Oreal-branded objects-- an amazing virtual item click-through rate of about 3% of the active user base [assumingsome individuals took more than one].
Leveraging Metaverse Brands
As a user-created world with its own currency, Second Life is already bristling with establishedbrands -- it's just that they exist only in Second Life. The wide array of virtual companieslaunched by content creators spans fashion, aerospace, architecture, tattoos, choreography,and arms technology, to name but a few. The most well-known have earned their place andtheir names, and new content released through these brands engenders a surge of authenticbuzz.The same cannot be said of real-world brands, and so the solution has always been obvious:Instead of superimposing them on the virtual world, everyday brands should seek out the mostpopular content creators, and then hire them to merge the real and virtual brands into aproduct release that only exists in Second Life. Recently, marketers for Playboy did just that,partnering with several top metaverse fashion designers to create official products [bustiers,T-shirts, and more] for sale on "Playboy Island." With that kind of engagement, it's no surprisethe virtual branch of Hugh Hefner's empire is among the most popular company-sponsored sitesin Second Life.While most Second Life-based marketing efforts have returned mediocre results, it's importantto note these early successes. Consider the broader Internet, which reached the mainstreampublic in the early 1990s but was initially dismissed as an irrelevant plaything of hobbyist geeks.By the mid-1990s, with the launch of commercial Web browsers, corporations were scramblingto stake out a presence online. By 2000, they had wasted hundreds of millions on Web sitesthat provided too little value for too few visitors. These sites were typically bland andnoninteractive, or stylish but insubstantial. After the dot-com crash, however, those sites thathad delivered sustained, substantial usefulness -- the likes of Amazon.com (AMZN), Yahoo!(YHOO), and eBay (EBAY) -- dominated.As a platform for commerce, Second Life first repeated the Internet's indulgent failures. But at