Virtual reality worlds may represent a test bed for experimenting and prototyping new ways to communicate, market and distribute content online.
This is the fascinating proposition that content distribution analyst John Blossom offers while sharing his insight into the potential of virtual world realities like the one popularized by SecondLife.
Photo credit: SecondLife
"The experience of shopping in a local store, for example, hasn't progressed much in the online era: you walk in, look at things, buy them (or not) and then walk out. In the meantime simulated communities are offering a far wider range of experiences for digital natives that enhance both commerce and social networks in ways that most local real-world marketers have not even begun to think about - much less plan for.
The gap is not between other online outlets and Second Life but rather between Second Life and real life."
The growth of game-like online communities is accelerating as virtual worlds like Second Life offer its members complete virtual lifestyles - including the ability to spend real-world dollars on both virtual and real goods and services.
The smell of real money is drawing strong interest from advertisers and media companies intent on not missing the next hot online trend.
But the real lesson of Second Life has a lot to do with the sorely neglected real world where publishers need to step up efforts to invent compelling new products that relate to digital natives.
Photo credit: Images from SecondLife by Zenigma Suntzu
The Web has been the home for many virtual world communities over the past decade, but with the advent of broadband access and speedy PCs virtual worlds have been booming. These 3-D online simulations filled with thousands of people moving about in attractive digital avatars draw in not only the gaming community but people looking for a whole virtual lifestyle and social network.
Second Life, the hottest of these virtual communities, has more than a million "inhabitants" and an economic system that offers more than play money for participants.
People can buy and sell real and virtual goods, services and real estate in the Second life economy, using "Linden Dollars" that members can buy - complete with their own currency exchange market data feeds.
Media companies have joined the bandwagon with kiosks to promote music and video downloads from real and virtual artists as well as news from a Reuters virtual news bureau reporting on happenings in Second Life.
In other words the view of cyberspace as a world unto itself is growing into a more multi-dimensional venue that provides many virtual equivalents of the physical world to satisfy its would-be residents.
Advertisers have been quick to pick up on this, building "islands" for their marketing campaigns that fit snugly into this fantasy world.
Video credit: A SecondLife ad by a micro-bikini company - Sweet Leaf Creation
Instead of spending lavishly on ads and promotions to help people imagine that their products can fulfill a buyer's fantasies, why not reach them when they are already inside their fantasies?
Photo credit: Olaru Radian-Alexandru
Hmm, was that car I just bought a virtual car or a real one...?
This is context that gets way inside the psyches of consumers. But if Second Life is pointing us more towards the future of marketing online it's a future that looks pretty familiar in many ways.
Look at an interactive map of its terrain and it resembles a mashup view of Google Earth overlaid with attractions and services. The game itself, while enhanced with the depth of a global community of players and an "anything goes" approach to designing experiences, doesn't really cut new territory in presenting an online experience.
The most compelling aspect of the game - everyone is equally artificial and equally able to have an impact on others in their virtual social circles - is straight out of the world of online user-generated content, already enhanced with audio, video and animated graphics.
The real significance of Second Life is not the great virtual clothes and the instant online physique overhaul that it offers members but rather the idea that there is a tool that can act as a testbed for marketing and publishing in real-world communities for digital natives.
The experience of shopping in a local store, for example, hasn't progressed much in the online era: you walk in, look at things, buy them (or not) and then walk out. In the meantime simulated communities are offering a far wider range of experiences for digital natives that enhance both commerce and social networks in ways that most local real-world marketers have not even begun to think about - much less plan for.
The gap is not between other online outlets and Second Life but rather between Second Life and real life.
Think of Second Life-like online communities as a metaphor for what's possible right now in the real world - if publishers were up to the challenge.
What are some of the huge gaps that can be closed in the real world through Second Life-like services?
Try a few of these avatars on for size:
Photo credit: Nikolai Okhitin
While Google Maps has introduced the concept of overlaying real-world products and services onto satellite photos of actual locations the artificial world of Second Life suggests that audiences want to break through the map metaphor into a real experience transparently - like walking through a looking glass. Newspapers and other locally-oriented publishers need to consider how they can help local marketers to use online capabilities to act as a communications tool to let online shoppers experience the "who" and the "where" of local merchants and services providers in a way that doesn't require either the merchant or the client feel that technology is getting in the way of a human experience.
Photo credit: Cristian Teichner
While marketers and players have different end motives in mind by spending Second Life cybercash, the mechanism for both is essentially the same: prepayment for long-term and on-demand services. Publications have been built for years around the idea of someone subscribing to content that supports their personal or professional lifestyle, which may be amplified with real-world events. What if a subscription bought them not only a publication or an event but membership in a community that included access to actual online and real-world lifestyles? There's a huge opportunity sitting between publications, associations and vendors that is poorly addressed at this point because each of these players has not been able to conceive of how to offer their services as the focus of a complete community experience.
Photo credit: Vista
The strength of online game worlds like Second Life points towards a generation that finds even most online content rather dull. So we can download songs and videos online. Whoopee. We've had radio and TV doing that for decades, in essence, and now everyone can post video and audio online through just about any channel. Web pages may have better fonts and layouts than a decade ago but they're still just flat text and graphics. Second Life amplifies the point that media companies have reached the end of a long run of increasingly second-rate content that cannot compete with our own individual and institutional imaginations. And perhaps that's not a bad thing.
Second Life reminds us that it's easy to get excited about out-of-body experiences online to the point of forgetting the in-body world where real people live and make decisions. As compelling as it may be it's just a crude reminder of how incomplete electronic content's penetration has been to date in the real world.
See you at the virtual mall - oh, if you see Avery Sikorsky (that's my avatar) there say hello. He's a nice guy.
Want to learn more about SecondLife?
Originally written by John Blossom, President of Shore Communications Inc. on ContentBlogger(TM) with the original title: "Get a Life: Second Life Points the Way Towards Content Growth in Real-World Communities
" on October 23rd 2006
Read more about John and the management consulting services of Shore Communications Inc. covering enterprise, media and personal publishing at Shore.com.John Blossom -