Second Life, with an alleged population of 7.979 million, is changing the way businesses think about what their customers want, and whether "virtual" is a viable way to give it to them.
The bombing of the ABC's newest office was hardly the kind of reception the national broadcaster would have expected -- but that's exactly what it got just weeks after the branch opened.
Fortunately, the owners of the real estate where the office was located were able to rebuild the ABC's office with just a few taps on the keyboard. Those owners, of course, were Linden Lab, the US-based company whose Second Life (SL) virtual world has become to virtual reality what YouTube is to viral videos.
The attack was perpetrated by anarchists known as "griefers", who also notably launched exploding pigs in a January attack that ravaged the SL site of French presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen (which had been attracting 10,000 visitors daily). A wakeup call for any organisation contemplating a foothold in the rapidly expanding virtual world, such attacks were noted by Sheryle Moon, CEO of IT industry body the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), when planning the organisation's recent entrance into the SL world.
The AIIA's Second Life presence reflects Moon's desire to educate Australian businesses about the environment's vast potential to reshape the way they interact with customers. Recognising that a firebombing or vandal attack would hardly inspire confidence amongst the organisation's constituency, Moon's team worked with Melbourne-based SL designers Cattle Puppy Productions to bolster the AIIA's "island" with a number of protective mechanisms designed to thwart malicious intruders.
"You have to consider the same sorts of issues that you do in real life," she said. "There are things like 'how do I secure my building', 'how do I make sure that the right people come in', that I'm conveying the right messages, and that I constantly refresh the content. The only way to evaluate whether a new technology is of benefit is to immerse yourself in it; if people don't understand the new technologies, they don't identify the opportunities."
The place to be
With even politicians hanging out their shingles in Second Life -- Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and numerous other US presidential wannabes all have their own SL "islands", as did all four major presidential candidates in France's election earlier this year -- it's clear that the virtual world is 2007's place to be.
Bruce Willis dropped in for an interview upon the launch of Die Hard 4.0, musician Jay Z recently performed online, and ???next week the American Cancer Society hopes to better last year's US$40,000 raised by using its third annual Second Life Relay for Life to raise US$75,000.
Like the AIIA, all are finding great value in experimenting with the creative freedom that Second Life provides. One after another, the world's major brands are also exploring this value: one company directory recently counted 85 global brands in Second Life, ranging from Nissan, BMW and Toyota to Reuters, Wired, Reebok, Vodafone, Sony Ericsson, Philips, H&R Block, and Visa.
While many of the efforts are little more than the 3D equivalent of mid-1990s "brochureware" Web sites, others are using SL's unconstrained interactivity to put new spins on concepts related to their businesses. In April, for example, Brazilian Airline TAM began offering branded clothing and planes for those who took free "flights" from TAM's own Berrini Island to islands called England, Milan, New York and Paris.
Last month, the Mexican Tourist Board set up virtual models of the pyramids at Chichen Itza to promote their New 7 Wonders campaign. IBM's two dozen or so SL islands include a re-creation of its famed research and development labs. And US real estate giant Coldwell Banker has been buying large tracts of SL land and selling them below cost to ensure increasingly popular in-world land auctions don't push real estate out of reach of ordinary punters.
Though somewhat less visible, Australian businesses are there too. Telstra Big Pond remains one of Australia's biggest Second Life investors, but it has more recently been joined by the likes of recruitment agencies TMP Worldwide and Sapphire Technologies, the Australia Council for the Arts, REA Group (parent company of realestate.com.au), and the Universities of Sydney and Southern Queensland.
Commercial return on such sites is notoriously unclear; many SL residents are actively anti-commercial, and rue the entry of real-world brands into their virtual playground (hence the rise of "griefers"). Some companies also worry about the virtual world's reputation as an outpost of sex and depravity, which could hardly do well-established brands any favours.
Bret Treasure, a Perth-based marketing consultant who recently launched a real-world Second Life consultancy called Inside This World, has found such fears keeping many Australian companies on the sidelines for now. "Gone are the days where a company will wait until a technology is completely mature before entering these environments," he said.
"The Internet has shown that you can be left behind. You're seeing American companies, in particular, with big brands taking serious risks by going in and risking damage to their brands on a very, very open platform. But I was recently speaking to a major Australian beverage company and they decided they don't want to participate in SL at the moment because they're worried about the risks."