Second Life: Life on the line
Last month BJL became the first agency outside of London to launch on Second Life – the virtual world, which has become an internet phenomenon. The agency’s virtual property is called Mancunia – and replicates online the part of Manchester in which the agency is based. Visitors can either explore the streets – which have been accurately recreated – or enter a representation of BJL’s building, Sunlight House, to visit the agency.
Although the development only cost around £1,000 in hard cash, the project has taken up significant amounts of agency time, spanning several months. But joint MD Nicky Unsworth sees the benefits of being a pioneer.
“At first this started off as an experiment. We were keen to get to know and understand Second Life, so we asked our digital people to look at creating a presence.
“Initially we were considering simply replicating our Think Space on the third floor, and developing the ideas of inviting people to virtual meetings, so they did not physically have to attend the agency to take part.
“But the idea grew from there. We have now recreated our whole area of Manchester. Our clients and agency people all have their own online avatars (online identities).
“We are not yet generating revenue from the project. But what it has allowed us to do is send out a signal that we have expertise as far as Second Life is concerned.
“I think it will work on two fronts. It will allow us to help real world clients develop a Second Life presence. And it will also allow our Second Life agency to work for Second Life clients – in fact there is a growing Second Life advertising market.”
However, should other agencies being scrabbling to follow BJL? Are cries of ‘I don’t see the business model’ reminiscent of the start of the internet? Well before dealing with these points perhaps, for all newcomers to Second Life, a small introduction is required.
Created by Linden Labs, a US-based technology firm, Second Life is not a social networking site in the model of MySpace, Bebo or Facebook. It is a virtual world. You download its software to your computer and interact via that. And it’s not all free. Of the some 8 million registered users of Second Life, it is estimated 40,000 subscribe.
You can select any username, but your surname has to be selected from a range provided, to create a sophisticated avatar (a virtual you). Then you can use Linden dollars, which is where the commercial aspect of the world comes in, to buy and sell products, land and services in this virtual world.
These Linden dollars can be exchanged for real dollars – so there is the potential to make (and lose) real money from this site – which also serves as a virtual market. As a result Second Life has already created some real life millionaires. In fact there were rumours recently that a Manchester-based digital designer had become one himself.
While it’s easy to imagine the forward-thinking brands [and favourites with geeks] like Cisco, AOL, Microsoft etc having a presence, more mainstream brands like BMW, Calvin Klein and Mercedes have also started to outline their presence. And similar to the first flush of the now ancient internet, there are companies popping up who will build your Second Life presence, much in the same way companies would build your web presence.
Nic Mitham is a director of K Zero, one such consultancy, which runs Second Life Safaris for marketers. He believes that Second Life – and all virtual worlds – marks the start of Web 3.0. “Virtual worlds could overtake the internet as we know it. They are basically a bigger version of the internet,” he says. “Computers get faster, broadband is increased, why have a static 2D environment when you can have a 3D one?”
If it’s potentially that big, then everyone needs to be there? Right? Mitham believes agencies’ and brands’ attitudes to virtual worlds need to change. “Ad agencies have to adopt a completely different frame of mind, it’s nothing like conventional marketing,” he says. “So really what ad agencies have tried to do is go in and position themselves as virtual world experts, expecting their clients to ask them to build a project to put their brand in.
“That’s the main reason ad agencies are going in. Already, you’re now seeing dedicated virtual world consultancies. You can’t get a little bit pregnant with virtual worlds, you have to completely engage and become immersed in it.
“You can’t ‘dabble’. Virtual worlds are not the same as social networking sites such as Facebook or MySpace, those are web-based and virtual worlds are a totally different platform. Some companies have started to integrate their activities across all the channels – having activity on just one channel is a bad idea. Virtual worlds are just another channel. Clients should be thinking ‘how do I take my cinema advertising and put it into Second Life’ and vice versa.”
But agencies like BJL are already thinking of applications beyond advertising. Said BJL’s Ian Mitchell, who helped develop the site: “The platform is not really achieving its full potential yet, but as the environment gets more stable and supports more ways to link to the internet we will see even more commercial opportunities. The real benefits are for our clients and we’re going to have some real fun discovering how far we can push their brands in this space.”
For BJL, one plan is to potentially hold virtual conferences and meetings, which as Mitham says above, is attractive for B2B users. “At the moment Second Life can only support 50 avatars in one cell (plot of land) so we don’t expect a Glastonbury or GMex sized conference to happen soon, but as we work more with clients, we expect they will see the benefits of meeting in the space. We already meet with clients all over the world using the Internet, so it’s not such a leap. Currently communications [in Second Life] are messenger/text based, but we will soon have voice (VOIP), which will make things a lot more interesting.”
Mitham agrees this presents a real opportunity. “One of the companies I’m working for is a major conference and event owner, they have multiple stakeholders such as conference organisers and sponsors, so we’re using Second Life to create a platform to bring all of those together,” he says. “We’re not actually selling a product. B2B companies have more benefits once you start to peel off the layers for things such as training where you bring together different offices, or explaining technology or services. The great thing about Second Life is that it’s very visual. If you want to explain how things are made, websites can only go so far.”
BJL’s Mancunia has been developed with the moral support of the great and good in Manchester itself. But as well as supporting BJL the city Council, in conjunction with a range of bodies including the support organisation for digital agencies – Manchester Digital, ran a live awards ceremony on Second Life.
Its chair Shuan Fensom, is looking closely at the BJL experiment: “I think that people are beginning to wonder, whether we are at the same stage now with Second Life that we were with the web at the beginning of the 90s,” he says, “In other words, there were a number of competing formats about how you should access information on the net and the World Wide Web was only one of them, but it became the dominant one and the rest is history.
“That is the question in the minds of the Manchester Digital membership. Is Second Life something we should be really learning very quickly about? Or is it actually a distraction?”