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Second Life, New Business?

Nothing comes close to a face-to-face meeting. However, in this current climate with tightening budgets and restricted expenditures, companies are looking for more cost-effective and timesaving ways to bring together multi-national stakeholders. Not only are costs influencing the decision of organisers but so is the need for them to leverage the latest technology to keep abreast of its market and needs of its visitors.

A virtual world can offer a chance for companies to present their products, learn about market needs, educate and network effectively, without the cost of air travel, hotels and time away from work. All that is needed is a computer, Internet access and a few minutes to get started. Companies such as IBM, MTV, Coca Cola and Reuters have already set up shop in this new marketing avenue.

Created in 2003 by San Francisco-based Linden Lab, Second Life is one of the most popular virtual worlds, where users are residents with surrogate identities known as ‘avatars’. The Second Life environment enables people to create highly customised 3D alter egos and exchange virtual currency for digitally rendered goods and services. Currently, Second Life draws over six million users worldwide and its ‘inworld’ economy saw over US$360 million transacted in 2008, according to Linden Lab.

No longer just for gamers, the exhibition industry is embracing the opportunities of an online environment. Mirroring real life exhibition centres, virtual buildings are being constructed with facilities that would make any organiser envious. With exhibition halls, conference theatres and break out rooms, visitors (in avatar form) can attend an event in real time without the need to travel.

Communication is simpler and a much more real experience using VoIP, live real-time voice technology. In the virtual world, when you hear someone speak you can see a visual representation of that person, who uses hand and facial gestures.

Virtual world creator, Digitell’s Steve Parker says: “The 3D environment is more enticing than the basic conference tools used by the industry. The average attendee at a virtual event right now is 41, revealing that it is not only catering for the needs of the Y generation.

“I have found that many senior management in their 60s are finding virtual events more intuitive than, say, websites, which can often be complicated with drop down options. They find the process of an avatar similar to real life. The platform is simpler in a 3D avatar-driven world,” add Parker.

Digitell has been in the event market since the 80s, recording meetings and conferences for archival purposes using various multimedia products and streaming the material for later use. The company has been developing a new product, a virtual exhibition and conference world, in the first quarter of 2009. The interactive 3D venues can be branded to suit the purpose with major sponsorship opportunities and can be designed completely private for your users without the worry of outside interaction. The space can hold up to 65,000 simultaneous users and organisations and clients will be able to lease the centres on a one-year term.

Parker wanted to enhance the experience and make this new avenue a viable way of education. “Associations are struggling with a decline of visitors and bailing exhibitors. People are trying to supplement their live events and to make the experience and potential last longer.”

At a recent Risk and Insurance Management Society conference, which was entirely in the virtual world over two days, 50 exhibitors paid for stands just like in real life and organisers saw 600 people attend. The sales of the booths are an important revenue stream for the organisers. “At the moment, we have on sale three styles of stands but many choose to invest more and customise them. We also have private show rooms where companies can invite guests in to test 3D models of its products and even show PowerPoint presentations,” adds Parker.

Many are using this marketing vehicle as a way to extend their annual physical presence. Organisers can hold an exhibition 365 days a year with some simple planning beforehand. However, Parker advises against a gung-ho approach to marketing in the virtual world. “Realistically, we suggest that organisers who invest in a virtual exhibition should set one day a month aside for companies to have an online representative.

“During the other days of the year, avatars that visit the stand will still have access to brochures and information about the company. Avatars are given briefcases to collect material as they would normally at an exhibition,” adds Parker.

He is also quick to add the benefits of such an experience. “The added benefit of a virtual experience is the instant tracking. We know who attended your stand or meeting, how long they stayed, what they did when they were there and how many times they returned. This data establishes a client base for companies to contact in the real life.”

“Associations are struggling with a decline of visitors and bailing exhibitors. People are trying to supplement their live events and to make the experience and potential last longer.”

Competitor to Second Life, Virtual Meeting World by Nielsen Business Media, is more of a destination marketing opportunity where event planners can have a ‘hands on’ feel for different cities and destinations. According to its hosts, SM/MN, the environment provides the audience with research for upcoming events. Entire cities have utilised the space as a marketing opportunity. One such city is Jamestown, New York state in the US. In an ecological development project, the council reinvented their city as a virtual city the way they hope to recreate it in the real life. They could test out the limitations of the new design before attempting it in real life.

Parker says: “The virtual realm has a lot of practical uses and the potential is endless. Chicago wanted to bid for a summer Olympics so they created what the ‘Olympic Chicago’ would involve and look like to enhance their bid.”

Futuresource Consulting and Rivers Run Red, are developing their own version of virtual exhibition and research centres built on the Second Life grid platform. Futuresource’s director, Tony Bicknell believes the key to keeping the attention of your visitors is interaction. “We started with virtual focus groups and realised that adding interactive buttons and options allowed the user to feel more involved. Equipped with key responses, suddenly they felt the need to respond and participate.”

“This is why we suggest keeping your event to around 20 to 30 visitors,” adds Bicknell.
 
One very real venue that found merit in the virtual world was the NEC Group that bought a plot of land in Second Life in April 2007. As the first exhibition venue in the UK to have a 3D presence in this virtual world, the NEC-branded building escaped the confines of Birmingham and situated itself on the beachfront. The two floors were complete with conference facilities, a stage, show listings and brand images throughout the space.

At the time of completion, the Group’s chief executive, Paul Thandi, said: “We are having an enormous amount of fun exploring ways to bring our brands to life virtually, and Second Life is an incredible platform for us to showcase our new brand.

“For us having a presence on Second Life is about learning, understanding, and engaging with new audiences,” Thandi added.

International exhibition organiser United Business Media experimented in 2007 with Second life attending week-long events with up to 1,000 attendees. Realising the potential to be harnessed, UBM ran four virtual events in 2008 such as the Education Now show, run in conjunction with the real life Building Schools BSEC. The organiser saw 7,000 registrations, spending an average of 165 minutes at the show.

“We now host our events on a sort of ‘second rate, second life’ platform, where users click to access areas rather than walk through rooms with an avatar,” says digital director for the Built Environment portfolio of UBM Live. “The flexibility a virtual event offers an attendee the option to come in and out, to wander.”

“In a recent virtual exhibition Sustainability Now which was held in May, we saw 1,500 attendees. Our model at the moment allows free entry to the exhibitions to grow the numbers.”

 

In October 2006, Starwood Hotels and Resorts used the virtual platform to launch a new brand, ‘aloft’, before it was launched in the real world. Again a first for the hotel market at the time, the opening was heavily promoted with a special performance by musician Ben Folds, who also used the world to promote his new album. The artist’s avatar stayed for a live inworld chat with attendees at the launch. Management from the hotel chain used the feedback from Second Life residents to shape the new design of the hotel, which included aspects from the colour palette to space planning.

“The Second Life community has been highly influential in our development process,” says vice president of Aloft hotels, Brian McGuinness. “Whether we are knocking down real or virtual walls, our goal is to provide business and leisure travellers with the next generation of hotel accommodation.”

Once the physical aloft hotel was opened, the hotel chain found they no longer required the virtual hotel on Second Life and gave the virtual plot of land away in July 2007.

Corbin Ball is an international speaker on technology for the meetings and exhibition industry and according to Ball, was the first speaker to present a full seminar to the events industry using Second Life. “In September 2007, in front of 100 delegates, the seminar was far more like a face-to-face experience than any web conference or web cast. Before the presentation I was able to walk around and speak with the attendees as they came in.

“Despite having to use the arrow keys to move around, the event felt exactly like a real time conference.”

Working within this realm, Ball does realise that many will be apprehensive in applying this technology to their business. “The challenge for this mode of communication is there is a fairly high barrier to entry. Visitors must download the application to enter the world and then create their online representation of
themselves.

“It is never going to replace actual real life events but it is a step better than the web events used at the moment. As I say, there is no thing like a virtual beer.”

“At best, five per cent of the world is already equipped to attend a virtual event. Gradually, companies will realise the potential of the online spaces and with wide usage it will become easier to use this realm in everyday business.”

He does believe that virtual events are not for everyone and will take a longer learning curve. “It does involve a degree of handholding in the planning stages but the benefits such as little set up and maintenance costs far outweigh the hassle.”

It is still early days says Futuresource’s Bicknell. “The successful case studies are coming in in droves and are proving there is a definite return on investment for companies taking the leap.

“Businesses are approaching our company with a vision, not only for saving money on events and travel but to implement the venture as part of the company’s corporate social responsibility programme,” adds Bicknell.

The designers of Second Life are in discussions for more detailed spaces, private branding and more control for companies organising an online event, according to Ball, who discussed the future of virtual events recently with the chairman of Second Life, Phillip Rosedale.

He believes exhibition organisers have to think of virtual events as an alternative way with major benefits. “In a usual webinar there is a degree of anonymity where you type responses and see a list of those involved as names. However, with an avatar you will see a franker exchange between exhibitors and visitors, just as in real life.”

For Bicknell, these virtual worlds are breaking news ground and “as ROI success stories continue to be illustrated, we will be more companies commit to this type of exhibition”.

As Ball says: “It is never going to replace actual real life events but it is a step better than the web events used at the moment. As I say, there is no thing like a virtual beer.”