Ruben Steiger, CEO of Millions of Us, which helps businesses market in virtual worlds, said that Second Life could provide an effective forum for holding b-to-b events. "You don't need to fly people, book hotels or arrange logistics," he said. "The advantage it has over the real world is cost, and the advantage it has over the Web is it's like the real world."
B-to-b marketers should be careful, however, not to hop on this bandwagon without a careful understanding of the virtual world. The audience is highly niche, and in-world events should only be staged by companies whose brand is cutting-edge. According to Catherine Smith, director of marketing at Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, "If you are not authentic and do not offer anything to the community, you are likely to be ignored, at best. ... We recommend that people join, learn and really feel things out before jumping in."
The logistics of setting up shop can be complicated. In-world events, though well-publicized, are still very new. The few companies that have attempted b-to-b events (IBM Corp., Sun Microsystems, Toyota Motor Corp. USA and a few others) often go through intermediary developers such as Millions of Us, which have staff that understands digital development and design.
Much like the real world, the first step in creating an event is to secure a venue. "You need to have land on which to hold [your event] and a venue that's designed to accommodate [avatars?or digital representations of visitors]," Steiger said. "You can go out and buy it yourself or you can work with a company like us who will buy it, develop it for you and coordinate and manage the event. For most businesses, it's a little difficult to do it yourself; there's a steep learning curve and a lot of cultural considerations." Also, it is possible to rent pre-existing venues.
Once the venue is secured, marketers will need to publicize their event. This can be done via traditional venues, such as mass e-mails and ad campaigns. There are hundreds of in-world media outlets, blogs and magazines that can be contacted (Reuters, for example, recently opened a Second Life bureau) as well as a Second Life events calendar.
Take care, however, to consider the roadblocks that may fall in the way while crafting the guest list. Event attendees will have to be told in advance to sign up for free Second Life accounts and download the program to their computers. Second, this digital universe does not support voice. "In an event like a conference, where there's lots of people, you don't need voice?typing is easier to keep track of who's talking," Steiger said. But with fewer people, an event may require voice.
Also, the constraints of the environment prevent large crowds. According to Steiger, holding an event with more than 50 or 60 people can slow down the server simulating the 3-D environment. To speed up connections, he says, be sure to advise virtual attendees to remove their hair and refrain from wearing "bling"?these objects are computationally intensive for the server to render on-screen.
Most important, Steiger says, "Second Life requires four firewall ports to be open. Most corporate networks don't have any firewall ports open. People who use it most often do it from home, but corporate clientele can't run Second Life in the office. They have to get IT to open those four ports. It's extremely easy, but you have to know to do it or it won't work." For those who cannot attend, in-world events can be recorded and posted later to a company's Web site or even on a video- sharing site such as YouTube.
The process is a bit tricky. However, for those keen to create a tech-savvy brand image, the street-cred is priceless. And eventually, marketing in Second Life and similar virtual worlds is likely to be widespread. "Wait a bit. That would be my general thought," said Second Life event attendee Michael Emerson, CMO of Aprimo Inc., a company that makes marketing management software. However, "Both consumers and b-to-b prospects are increasingly resistant to the classic marketing model," he said. "[Second Life provides] a way of having collaborative networking where the channel keeps people much more engaged."