Businesses get a Second Life

Facebook and Twitter may have snatched the virtual world's spotlight as choice marketing tools, but Second Life finds renewed existence for enterprises.

The spotlight on Second Life as a marketing tool has dimmed with the emergence of social media tools like Facebook and Twitter, although the virtual world is increasingly used by enterprises internally for virtual meetings and events, says its developer, Linden Lab.

Second Life saw its hype peak two years ago as users flocked to the platform. According to reports at the time, however, businesses setting up virtual shop there did not profit from their online ventures, nor where they expected to in the immediate years to come.

Some companies today are putting more emphasis on social media platforms like Facebook--which reached 300 million users in September--and Twitter.

Greg Fisher, head of advertising and marketing services at Intel Technology Asia told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that Intel, which launched a Second Life marketing campaign in 2007, is increasingly leveraging "more traditional" social media channels such as Facebook, Orkut and Twitter to reach Asia-Pacific mainstream consumers.

IDC Asia-Pacific's market analyst for digital marketplace and new media, Debbie Swee, thinks Second Life was not able to capture a mass audience because of the learning curve it presented.

"When Second Life was launched, it was considered way ahead of its time... It would have thus required [people] to be fairly advanced users of the Internet, or even possess some technical know-how," she explained.

"Now that a larger majority of Internet users have become savvier, Second Life has pretty much lost its allure. Coupled with the bad press about 'griefing' and sexual harassment in the virtual world, it will take some time for Second Life to pick up adoption again," she said.

Swee added that Second Life as a virtual world operates on a vastly different dimension, compared to Facebook and Twitter which are online applications that facilitate social activity on the Internet.

On whether Facebook and Twitter might see interest surrounding them dip as well, Swee replied that "some attrition may occur after people get bored of these tools" but she believes that "social network sites are here to stay, whether it is Facebook, Friendster or an upcoming brand in the future".

Second Life complementing social media
Linden Lab, Second Life's creator, does not see Facebook and Twitter as competitors but complements to its virtual world platform. Chris Collins, general manager, enterprise at Linden Lab told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that organizations can "tweet" their location in Second Life for followers to meet them or they can share photos of their experiences in-world on Facebook.

Collins added: "Like Facebook and Twitter, Second Life is a social tool. What makes Second Life unique is the immersive and rich experience it offers as a tool for communication, collaboration and more."

"Whereas platforms like Facebook and Twitter are often used for one-to-many communication and direct customer outreach, Second Life is increasingly being used today as an internal enterprise tool for collaboration, prototyping, meetings and conferences, and training," he said.

Collins said that more than 1,400 organizations including universities and Fortune 500 companies are set up in Second Life. He added: "While a broad range of companies are currently using Second Life, the virtual world is particularly well-suited for organizations with a distributed workforce that needs to meet and collaborate, and organizations that need to rapidly and inexpensively prototype or train workers."

To that end, Linden Lab in November launched the beta of Second Life Enterprise, a version of Second Life that can be hosted behind an organization's firewall.

"Second Life Enterprise provides all of the benefits of working in Second Life--communication tools, resources, content creation and collaboration--with the added benefits of enhanced privacy and centralized administrative controls," said Collins, adding that 14 organizations are currently using Second Life Enterprise.

IBM is one of the organizations which has adopted Second Life Enterprise. Neil Katz, distinguished engineer from IBM's Office of the CIO told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail interview that the company holds internal business meetings "nearly every day in Second Life", and uses it to work with clients as well.

IBM, which has had a virtual Business Center set up in Second Life since 2007, uses different social media channels to address different audience segments, said Katz. "One is not a replacement for another and, in fact, they can complement each other depending on the application."

He said IBM's Second Life audience includes its "technical, non-technical, and services oriented population, spread across multiple countries and geographies".

"In today's world, where there is a need to focus on customer needs and minimize internal travel, there remains a strong need for employees to continue to collaborate, communicate, and meet even when face-to-face meetings are impossible," he said, adding that Second Life helps to provide "an immersive, 3D, real-time experience that is impossible by other means, and very valuable when it is impossible to have a face-to-face meeting".

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