Friday, June 29, 2007

What Works In Second Life?

My in box was inundated with emails about the article, Sex, Pranks and Reality. (Yes, it's behind a reg wall. Bugmenot, Luke.) At first I tried to answer each email politely and completely, but I finally crafted a canned note identifying a rebuttal, more Forbes bashing, and my favorite dose of irony, a Philip Rosedale special report on the very same

I'm not going to decompose and reconstruct the Forbes storytelling menagerie, but it was a stimulus to make me think that there *must* be a simple way to look at what works in a synchronous relationship space, virtual or otherwise, and to put that into the context of why some corporations are truly failing in this space.

Is there some secret sauce to success in the virtual space? Of course there is; it's what makes any and every relationship work -- give and take -- but this is hardly a secret. Why is this so difficult and taking so long to understand? Perhaps the Cluetrain Manifesto was released too early, or the academic treatise of Cultural Convergence ala Jenkins and the Wealth of Networks ala Benkler are just too difficult to grasp. There are also several treatises on marketing in Second Life, but even those seem to be falling on deaf ears.

It's time for me to coin my pitch about this new era of relationship, in terms easier to grasp:
The new market is DIALOGUE, the new currency is INTERACTION and the exchange rate is variable, based on ENGAGEMENT. - Grace McDunnough
Let's break it down to help understand the hurdles presented to large corporations.

Hurdle #1: DIALOGUE
To crack the cultural codes of Second Life, you have to engage in conversation. You may actually have to say hello to someone you've never met, you have to be willing to say what you want to say and challenge a point of view in real time, synchronously. Dialogue is critically important to building awareness; it's also the first and most basic part of a relationship.

The power of the Second Life platform is the ability to present and shape the dialogue in many experiential dimensions - spatially, visually and audibly. Why is this hard for large corporate entities? I think the answer is obvious; communication is not a strength of most large organizations internally, and externally there are layers of marketing, communication and public relations specialists that carefully craft the "message" and certainly not in real time.

Dialogue often requires that you actually be present, unlike an asynchronous web presence, and many instances of news about corporate presence in Second Life indicate that they are too devoid of people. If dialogue is a requirement, then just getting in the game presents a challenge for large corporations.

Assuming you've cleared the dialogue hurdle, the next question is "Can you walk the talk?". A few large corporate builds in Second Life seem to think that interaction is achieved by putting in a rollercoaster or a ski slope. That may work if you are building an amusement park or a ski resort, but what I mean by interaction is more scientific - like that of a state change. Interaction is the process of employing the artifacts of the dialogue practically to affect change.

An example of this type of interaction was the Starwood Hotels Virtual Aloft project where the results of the community feedback were subsequently incorporated into the next release of the product.
Aloha! We are pleased to announce the reopening of the virtual aloft. Over the past few months, we have actively solicited input from you, the Second Life residents, on such design features as public spaces, guest rooms and exteriors – everything from color palette to space planning. After reviewing all of your comments, several changes to the overall design of aloft are a direct result from your feedback. Not only have these changes been applied to the virtual hotel, they will also be reflected in the “real-life” aloft hotels.
True interaction is not just a public relations stunt, it requires thinking about what you are willing to expose, and it requires that corporations listen to the voice of their consumers. Mostly it requires some accountability to the objective and attendant results which is always a hurdle.

Finally, the holy grail of a relationship -- how much does your time *with me* mean to you? Engagement is the new darling topic of the digital media ad sales and marketing world. It is still tough to define absolutely as it hinges on other equally obtuse elements such as "involvement", "experience", "resonance", "relationship", and a throw back to the web days of eyeballs per fortnight, "stickiness".

The real value of relationship is the response it draws from the individual, and that is how we measure engagement. You've heard the phrase "quality time" in relationships; it applies equally well to developing and maintaining a successful virtual presence. The crux of the quality measure is that it is interpreted from a single perspective - what is quality time to me may not be to the next person and therefore the value equation can shift. This makes corporations cringe. It flies in the face of what most, not all, corporations have adopted as the de facto exchange rates for their online presence which is reach and frequency.

So what works? Let's review. Build a relationship by starting a dialogue, stimulate and sponsor interactions, and tap into the emotional response of the person on whom you rely for consideration, brand loyalty including peer promotion, and purchasing.

And if you are more of an visual/audio learner, I think the New Radicals have a good point in "You Get What You Give".

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