The July 2nd issue of Forbes has a fascinating article (reg. req.) about failed marketing efforts in Second Life, but not for the reasons its author, Allison Fass, intended. Instead, it’s the latest example of a larger trend: if 2006 was the year of inaccurate, over-hyped Second Life coverage, 2007 is the year of equally inaccurate counter-spin.
“Sex, Pranks, and Reality” is 714 words long, yet contains at least ten errors or omissions, many I've spotted in other publications; given Forbes’ reputation, however, these memes are now injected even deeper into an unresolved issue. The irony is that there are numerous limitations to SL as a marketing platform-- it requires a client download, advertising is easy for users to ignore, and so on-- but Forbes fails to mention any of those. (If they're even aware of them, but that's not at all clear.)
But leave that to one side. I’ll just point out the mistakes, and let readers draw their own conclusions.
- No, Second Life is not “a Web fantasy world”, it runs from a
downloadable non-Web client.
- It does not have “a population of 7.1 million registered users”, that’s just the total number of created accounts—regular unique users are now closer to half a million.
- No, concurrent log-ins aren’t “more like 30,000”; from February to April, they were closer to 36-39K during prime time; by May, they’ve grown to over 40-48K at peak.
- And sorry, but helicopter crashes in SL do not cause “dead bodies”, because avatars are indestructible. (This is such a painfully obvious goof I’m guessing Ms. Fass has little first-hand experience in Second Life, if any.)
- It’s doubtful American Apparel’s SL site “attracted more critics than shoppers”—the company itself reported 4,000 total sales last September, while protesters numbered in the dozens, if that.
- The comical “Second Life Liberation Army” protests Fass mentions were not anti-corporate per se, but part of a bid to demand avatar-based voter’s rights.
- It’s true that Starwood Hotels is selling its SL-based prototype hotel, not for lack of visitors, as Fass writes, but because it was always intended as a short-term marketing research effort.
- Wells Fargo never had any direct connection to Second Life the world—it merely licensed the underlying technology from Linden Lab.
- And while Lenovo marketing VP David Churbuck did opine that “there’s nothing to do in Second Life except… get laid”, he based that assertion (he later told me) on a brief, scattershot survey of the world. (Sexual activity is reportedly designated on less than 18% of SL’s total landmass, actually.)
- Finally, when a company buys Second Life land, it’s very much not true that “this leasehold doesn't fence out troublemakers.” Most or all incidents of anti-social “griefing” Fass mentions (flying penises, gunfire, etc.) could have been prevented, had the site owners used the access/activity restriction tools available to landowners. (It’s like a real world storeowner leaving his shop unattended with the doors wide open and the alarm disarmed—then blaming the landlord, when the place gets trashed.)
So do these copious errors mean Second Life is a marketers’ paradise? For mass eyeballs, definitely not—several virtual worlds which allow outside advertising are much larger. As a boutique effort to a demographically attractive audience? Maybe, depending on expectations and investment. No one knows for sure. It’s why I’m still hoping a top-flight business magazine like Forbes does the research to generate some meaty answers.
But that’ll probably require a reporter who knows what happens when a virtual chopper explodes.