Marketing a Second Life

As a marketer and communicator, I'm fascinated with what companies are doing in Second Life, the 3D online world entirely built and owned by its nearly two million residents. The Second Life economy is built on the Linden dollar in which millions of U.S. dollars (at the current exchange rate) change hands each month. But just as in other social networking sites (like MySpace and Facebook), marketers and communicators who participate are viewed with contempt. People claim they want to keep the network "pure" and many residents of Second Life see anything with a corporate badge as evil. Although there are some companies who just slap up a building and leave, the best corporate participants do things that enhance the experience for residents.

Upon becoming a new resident, you create an avatar using the Second Life tool. Entrepreneurs sell clothes for avatars, artwork, and furniture for homes and businesses, and, well, basically anything that you'd need in the real world. Companies like American Apparel and Reebok have a positive corporate presence with boutiques where they can not only make a little money but also promote the brands to Second Life residents who might then be more inclined to be customers offline too.

Other corporations doing interesting things in Second Life include: Starwood Hotels' loft-style hotel bar where you can hang out; Sun Microsystems presentation space where they work with their gaming developers; Text100, a public relations firm that conducts live press conferences for clients in Second Life; and Toyota, which sells cars for your avatar to motor around in. In my opinion, all are useful and interesting ways to have a corporate presence that shouldn't be dismissed as exploitative.

Entertainment businesses are starting to pop up in Second Life and I see this as a particularly good way for companies (such as Universal) and artists to both promote in the virtual world and also generate buzz outside of Second Life. Rock bands like Duran Duran and Uncle Seth have Second Life outposts where they play live concerts and sell merchandise. John Hockenberry, host of NPR's popular mental health program "The Infinite Mind," interviewed author Kurt Vonnegut in Second Life. These entertainers have enhanced the Second Life experience for residents and these efforts should be applauded.

The global information company Reuters opened the world's first virtual news bureau in Second Life. Reuters reporter Adam Pasick, known as Adam Reuters in Second Life, serves as virtual bureau chief. "Like any reporter, I'll cover Second Life events as they happen, interview residents, and uncover interesting stories," Pasick said in an announcement about the bureau's launch. "Reuters's capability and experience in news and financial reporting will be valuable to the thousands of people who need to make decisions about how they run their businesses inside Second Life. Whatever the news, Reuters will be there." Clearly, Adam Reuters is adding value to the community as a reporter and he shouldn't be dissed just because he works for a large corporation.

People who are residents of Second Life are an interesting marketing demographic, which is one reason why I think so many companies are interested in the world. Residents are early adopters, creative and innovative, and are highly educated. But in a world where you design your avatar to look very different than yourself, it is interesting to consider how you actually market here. I'm a forty-something-year-old man, but in Second Life I might choose a sexy young woman as my avatar. So how to market? I'd say you ignore who might be behind the avatar and market to the avatar itself: "miniskirt, sir…um, I mean madam?"

What is certain is that marketing and PR in Second Life will continue to evolve. Quickly. Success for individuals and companies comes from experimentation. With a site like Second Life (or the next new thing), nobody knows the rules at first. Smart marketers are succeeding just by trying. Reuters, for example, generated a ton of stories in the mainstream media and on blogs when it opened its virtual news bureau. They got a huge amount of buzz just for trying. As you read this, the general public will begin to know much more about Second Life. Any minute now, I expect to see Second Life on the cover of a major business magazine. And, like blogs back in 2005, that doesn't mean they've sold out. It means Second Life will get more than a second look.