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There’s Still a Future for Virtual Worlds

There’s Still a Future for Virtual Worlds

One year ago, Gartner said 80 percent of active internet users will have a “second life” in the virtual world by the end of 2011. But that was soooo last year, right? Wrong.

While Second Life itself may have hit the “trough of disillusionment” on its hype cycle, it’s on the way to the enlightenment phase; and, virtual worlds beyond Second Life are still something to which you should be paying attention.

McKinsey & Company, a management consulting firm, was recently reported as saying that virtual worlds were on the cusp of a major expansion – particularly as a way to reach younger customers – and that companies were “ignoring them at their peril.” MicKinsey has also noted in a separate report that virtual communities tip the balance of power in
commercial transactions toward the customer. They provide a powerful vehicle for vendors to deepen and broaden their relationships with the people who buy their goods and services.

The word relationship is key there. Many of the mistakes that were made by companies entering virtual environments in the past were rooted in the way that they approached their involvement as a marketing exercise — one where it’s all about promoting a product. What makes virtual worlds unique, though, is their ability to immerse people in an experience. And, while we can try to find creative ways to immerse people in a product such as a soft drink, makeup or computers, the real connection comes from interacting with people.

In a Future of Computing article for the British Computer Society, the editor of Virtual Worlds Review, Betsy Book, noted six features of a virtual world: shared space, graphical user interface (the depiction of space visually), immediacy, interactivity, persistence (the world exists regardless of whether users are logged in), and community.

That community element is what puts virtual worlds in the category of social media. And, like other social media, virtual world use by organizations is hampered by a lack of ways to measure the results that come from involvement in them. But, Comscore reports that 30 percent of consumer internet activity in the US is already in the areas of social media. And many great thinkers and analysts such as Jeremiah Owyang are bringing social media to the mainstream by exploring new metrics that will help take us beyond “marketing 101” theory.

While events drive much of the traffic in Second Life today, users say they want to see representatives of companies in-world between such special occasions. They want to make a connection with the real people inside of the organization. That’s why Dell began keeping regular office hours for customer service and tech support in Second Life. These are not intended to replace any current methods customers have for contacting the company for assistance, but rather to open a new venue and give another means for making that real person-to-person connection.

Virtual worlds not only allow people to connect in many of the ways other social media properties do (chat, video, voice), they take it a step further. The immersive experience and feeling of being in the same place at the same time as someone else is always one of the hardest things to convey about virtual world environments. Think of going to a concert with your best friend, sitting together in the stadium commenting on the way the lead guitar player moves around the stage. Or, think of shopping at the mall with your friend, viewing the same clothes at the same time, encouraging each other to purchase yet another pair of black shoes. Now imagine doing those things while your friend is half way around the globe from you. That’s what virtual world environments can give you, and it’s only really
understood once experienced.

Two great machinima producers prepared a video to try to explain it to Congress recently during hearings before the
House Committee for Energy and Commerce’s Subcommittee on Telecommunications and the Internet, where several leaders in the field provided testimony on virtual worlds’ potential impact on education, community, business and

But, I always encourage anyone interested in what a virtual world could do for their organization to spend time there before bringing your brand in-world. A good Sherpa is always useful, and there are more and more agencies out there with the experience to lead you. But, nothing replaces having experience yourself. You know your organization and you are the best one to determine if virtual worlds can be a good fit. Learn from the mistakes and successes of others that ventured into this brave new territory before you.

Laura (Pevehouse) Thomas has worked in and around the Dell family for more than seven years, primarily in the areas of corporate communications, employee communications, public relations, community affairs, branding and online communication. She also assisted with the creation of Direct2Dell, and oversees web feeds and podcasts on In her spare time she led Dell into the metaverse with the creation of Dell Island in Second Life.

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