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Second Life: How to make it work for business

First rule: no guns in the office...
Written by Steve Ranger, Global News Director on

First rule: no guns in the office...

Most people don't need to be told not to play with guns or build things in the office. But then again most people probably don't work in an office where strangers regularly teleport in out of nowhere, or where fabulous monsters fly in through the windows.

And this is probably because not that many businesses have set up offices in Second Life - yet.

Second Life might have been around since 2003, but it's only within the last few months that big businesses have started to look at the virtual world as a potential marketplace. After all, the virtual world now boasts 1.2 million "residents" who, between them, spend $500,000 every day.

Rarely a week goes by without another big business opening an office, or a hotel, inside Second Life. Even political parties are getting in on the fun, with the UK Independence Party claiming it will have a branch open by the end of the year.

Second Life residents are savvy trendsetters, said Raz Schionning, web director of fashion retailer American Apparel, which opened its Second Life story (Click here for pictures) back in the summer.

"Opening a store in Second Life is a good move because it offers us an opportunity to get in on the ground floor with a new channel of digital marketing," he explained.

The store is intended to spread the brand and engage the interest of Second Life citizens. "Perhaps they'll try our avatar clothing... then perhaps try it for real," Schionning said.

But the store is just the first step: "We know there are many more places we can go with this concept, and in the future we could use our location in Second Life to try new store layouts or create avatar-specific products," he revealed.

It's not just retailers looking for a new show window that are moving in. PA Consulting opened the doors of its virtual building last month, and wants to use Second Life as a new way of communicating with clients and as a way of recruiting and attracting new staff. (Click here for pictures of the office.)

Claus Nehmzow, who heads up PA's thinking on virtual worlds, told silicon.com: "In all companies, but probably most in consulting, all the assets we have are our people. We already had the first recruit moving from looking at our office, to chatting, to a real life phone conversation, to an interview in one of our offices."

Second Life - the corporate invasion

Click on the links below to see pictures of some of the many real-world businesses that have set up outposts in Second Life.

Sun Microsystems
American Apparel
CNET Networks
PA Consulting
Yankee Stadium
Bartle Bogle Hegarty

But running an office in Second Life needs different ground rules to a real world bricks-and-mortar building. As everyone can fly or teleport wherever they want you don't always know who is turning up.

Also, some activities possible in Second Life aren't appropriate for businesses. For example - that it is a real office and not a game. "Don't play with guns or rez [create] objects, but set an example. Think about the fact that you represent the company and that this is not Half-Life," Nehmzow explained.

Staff have to be on their best behaviour because there's no way of knowing if the avatar that just wandered in is a competitor, a journalist or their own chairman playing mystery shopper.

And building an office is just the start - after all, it needs to be staffed as well.

"If things take off we might have permanent reception staff, but again that can be in a cost-effective way, shared by several offices around the clock because this is a 24x7 operation. For open days of events, we would be able to bring in people as needed. You can't really do any of that in a real-life office," he said.

Nehmzow said there are broader gains to be had from using virtual worlds like Second Life - as a tool for getting consumer feedback, improving customer care transactions, and for collaborative development.

And while not all Second Life residents are happy that the corporations are moving in, Nehmzow insists the two groups can live together.

"All of this not as an 'exploitation without compensation' or steamrolling of the existing Second Life community, but as a potential collaboration (with real-life business coming into Second Life providing real and additional employment and entrepreneurial opportunities) between both worlds and to the advantage of both," he argued.

Sun Microsystems (Click here for pictures) is using its newly opened Sun Pavilion as a better way to reach out to developers and customers than conference calls or webinars.

Chris Melissinos, Sun's chief gaming officer, told silicon.com: "We can also create virtual versions of our technologies to display, and give a better hands-on experience than web 1.0. And again the fact that Second Life is unbounded by real-world geography is a huge advantage."

"Establishing our presence has been a great experience - it was certainly much less expensive than opening a real-world office, and more importantly it is not constrained by geography," he added.

Acording to David Birch,director of consultancy Consult Hyperion, these virtual worlds are a cross between a "window into the future of online interaction and a sandbox for experimenting with post-modern constructions of identity", which is what makes them so attractive to businesses.

Companies are investing because they see these virtual worlds as representative of the multiple, overlapping virtual spaces that we will use to interact in the future, he said. And while some may still look on them as games, others see them brave new markets.

As he points out: "If the basic question is 'are these economies real', then the answer is 'yes'."

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