Monday, August 06, 2007

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One marketer's case for viral advertising in the virtual world...

Last week, just as the media backlash against failed marketing in Second Life had seemingly reached a crescendo, an article from the Hollywood Reporter appeared which suggested an entirely different story.  It cited the President of IMAX Film Entertainment, which promoted IMAX screenings of the latest Harry Potter movie in Second Life, and as he told it, doing so wasn't a gimmick, or an experiment with mixed results.  No-- according to him, it was instrumental to the movie's success on the company's chain of giant screens:

"A huge proportion of our opening weekend tickets came from advance Internet purchases, and a large number of those people came from interacting on Second Life."

I was skeptical, for the company behind the SL-based promotion, This Second Marketing, was frankly one I hadn't heard of before.  But somehow, in the space of a week, the firm managed (by the Reporter's account) 15,099 unique avatar engagements, the most for any single one-on-one SL campaign.  (Unsurprisingly, dedicated SL-antagonist Valleywag was snarky, arguing that engaging 18 people an hour wasn't very impressive.)

All that in mind, I got in touch with Second Marketing's Joni Rich, to explain her campaign.  Joni laid out an extensive case for Second Life marketing, one that was markedly different from that made by most other metaverse developers.  It totally up-ends the assumptions of location-based marketing tracked by Tateru, and because it involves what some might call "camping the noobs", is bound to be controversial.

After the break, she talks about her "buzz agents", along with why she abandoned a successful career in real world marketing for the virtual kind, why other SL-based advertising has failed so far-- and where she thinks Second Life is going as a platform.


Why she started This Second Marketing

I first came to Second Life in April 2006, when there were about 150,000 Residents as I recall, with the intention of opening a virtual art gallery...not thinking I would change my professional line of business from brand marketing relationship builder and strategic partnerships consultant for the top tier of advertising and marketing agencies, to owning a virtual marketing and promotion agency specializing in Second Life.

But when I read about the brand marketing efforts that were going on there, I checked out the ones that were getting tremendous buzz in the media. They were usually a "Fill-in-Brand-Name-Here Island" and they were invariably desolate and totally devoid of activities and social opportunities. I recognized the tremendous potential of this new digital landscape for communications of all kinds, marketing as well as education and socializing and more and knew I would love to be a part of moving this new 3D web platform forward.

A buzz agent prepares to spread the word

How they Marketed Harry Potter for IMAX

Branded Buzz Agents… traveled throughout the Second Life grid and engaged people in conversations by offering them free IMAX movie-related items that they can keep in their inventories and give to an unlimited number of their friends. IMAX Buzz Agents also handed out virtual tickets with a link to the IMAX site where 300 real life IMAX tickets, the total allotted for the promotion, were redeemed. We collected the names of all the avatars we had conversations with and gave IMAX promotional items to. We asked each on if they would like us to contact them in the future regarding IMAX releases and not one person said No.

We have now created a database of Second Life residents that we will be able to continue our conversations with and deliver great virtual promotional "swag" for. We will be creating a Second Life group dedicated to building community about Movies and particularly the IMAX movie experience. IMAX can learn from and provide value to these special group members.

Why they promoted the movie in the Lindens' Welcome Area, where advertising is generally banned


[W]e have a very special relationship with the Residents who are in charge of the area where newbies are sent first. They actually LIKE having us there because we talk with the people and give them something fun to do as soon as they get there. Most people don't have a clue how to search or go anywhere and we explain that they can teleport by double clicking the landmark in the promo folder.

[In many cases, these Agents send new users to the island of a floral company, another Second Marketing client.]

We only did three Buzz Agents from Friday night to Sunday morning with a total of just sixty Buzz Agent hours but were able to interact with 1654 unique avatars and OF THOSE, during that time, 925 over them went to visit the Flower Show! That is remarkable!

So you are correct that most commerce is not permitted in the Welcome areas, however our Buzz Teams and Managers are all people who volunteer and do a lot of support for newbies and the quality of our promotions and the rules we have in place make us more than welcome, while others will have a hard time getting permission, and probably won't, unless they are as involved as we are, and provide the level of professionalism and value of freebies that we do.

What they tell real world clients about engaging the community

We have certain rules that our clients must abide by in terms of providing value to the Residents in everything they do. For example, for, we have them pump 500,000 Linden Dollars worth of SL jobs into the economy as their support to enter SL with their "Job ATMs" which we paid 50 venue owners real money to place on their sims where people can access them to find SL in-world jobs as well as link to for a variety of employment services, right from the kiosk.

On Valleywag's criticism of the Harry Potter campaign, and failed marketing in SL

First, let me point out that the failures of the early Second Life marketing efforts were largely due to the fact that tech heads... were leading their clients into Second Life without understanding of even basic marketing principles and tactics. Most of the companies in the SL development business, as far as I know, are led by people with high tech backgrounds and very little marketing knowledge or experience.

As you know, there is tremendous media coverage about Second Life and what it represents to the future of the web and the digital world as we know it... If you are old enough to recall, in the early 1990s, people would by books to find out where the good websites were... no Google. People paid $3.99 per hour to chat on AOL.  Brand marketers didn't understand why they needed a website if they sold soap or food but they started to realize they did.

In the early years, the web development was a function of the IT department and not the marketing department. Notice any similarity there?

But once the web became accessible and ubiquitous, the business world began to understand that the web is the ultimate way to communicate with your target audience. The entire advertising industry had a seismic shift which is still continuing today. The "30 Second Spot" which used to be the Holy Grail of advertising and get the lion's share of the brand's ad and marketing budget, is no longer the end-all be-all to reach and influence consumers. Add to that the level of engagement that consumers expect from marketers now, and you can start to see how a metaverse like Second Life opens new doors for brand marketing and communications.


The "pundit" who wrote this little blurb quite obviously knows little about marketing or how marketing in Second Life works. First, the HUGE advantage that SL offers is that a brand like IMAX can actually have a one-on-one CONVERSATION with individuals in the highly desirable resident population of Second Life. These 15,099 people didn't pass by a billboard, they engaged in a conversation about IMAX and the release of the latest Harry Potter movie in IMAX 3D and how fantastic the 3D finally is when you see it in IMAX. They accepted promotional items from these brand ambassadors and enjoyed using the free virtual items. This is a far more immersive brand experience than anything else I can think of happening on the web.

Another interesting fact to point out is that the structure of Second Life is such that Linden Lab is not at involved with the marketing programs that our clients or any other companies bring to Second Life. For the writer to imply that SL is somehow using this story for its own image is ridiculous. This story came about through IMAX and The Hollywood Reporter called me and had no communication at all, as far as I know, with Linden Lab except perhaps with the head of developer relations because I told her she could check with him to verify that this was the largest one-on-one outreach of its kind as far as he knew, which I had verified myself after the results were in.

Where she sees SL evolving in the future

Since I am banking on SL being an important part of my professional future, I naturally have concerns about certain aspects of the company and the metaverse. Tell you what I think I is going to happen...

Linden Lab is not trying to make this a proprietary platform, in fact, they are opening their source code and encouraging people to develop on what they have started. They are having their hands full keeping the grid stable and able to expand. They are not focused on making the interface more intuitive or easier to use. If they did that at this point, there would be larger issues with keeping the grid stable and growing. However, they have made it possible for any developer who wants to work on the interface, to do so.

We are in such an early stage, that most of the general public has not heard of Second Life. The well- informed public may have heard of Second Life, but are not sure what it is or have a total misconception of Second Life, believing it is a game. I think that there will never be another Second Life business structure, although there will be tons of metaverses of different sorts. I cannot imagine that a corporation which  builds a metaverse for whatever purposes, is going to allow users to create whatever they want and run businesses on their metaverse.


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Patch Lamington

Surprised this hasn't drawn any comment!

If marketing/advertising is not allowed in the Welcome Areas then the rule should be adhered to... allowing exceptions on the basis that the staff were polite and gave out good freebies really just opens it up for a whole load more brand-name freebie givers clogging up the WAs

As soon as I can get some time free, I'll get down to a WA and help out some new residents while sporting a fetching box above my head proclaiming "Buy UBIK! The wonder-spray - gives salads that super-zing" or somesuch.


I, too, am surprised this important post hasn't drawn a lot of comment. It's a vital topic and one that we all should be contemplating for the future. Too bad Patch and Valleywag could only think to be negative nitpickers.

Some of this reminds me of late-20th century purists whimpering about commercializing the Web. I think most people by now have come to realize that was a boon to society.

I agree in general with Joni Rich's thinking about SL, although I suppose there are some things I might have put differently.

She is correct that bells-n-whistles lovers have been the movers and shakers here. Now we need people with a variety of RL professional experiences beyond the IT industry to step up and start blowing some steering currents. People with real experience should start exerting some virtual energy. I suppose the reason they have not flexed their real muscles yet is this is all so new. They probably are just feeling their way along for now, starting with one or another little business to see how it goes for them on a personal level.

This makes Joni a pioneer at the executive level. Her early leadership is invaluable.

--Stone Semyorka

Timbo Urbanowicz

We did the same campaign for Hollands biggest outdoor Festival called 'Lowlands'.
We created a unique very funny tiny avatar, which is daily promoting and giving away nice Lowlands goodies.

You can see the results on :

Residents are very positive about this and they all love the tiny avatar. That's the key to this succes, create a wierd avatar. Be remarkable.

Timbo Urbanowicz

Working link of the tiny avatar


The balance of what marketing is or has been against what can happen when people get to interact with others requires a bit of a change in thought processes.
I think it is not so much reaching everyone with a billboard and a percentage then go on to purchase products or services. It is more about people being able to be involved in the conversation about the product or service and have a more in depth buying experience.
There is room for both in the world, real and virtual.
Take car buying, people enagage with the process in all sorts of ways. They may see tv adverts, develop a brand awareness in mass marketing, motor sport etc. They may watch TV shows or read magazines. At some point though they will engage in a 1:1 conversation with a dealer in a showroom, gaining personal attention and information.
Every car dealership I have ever been in has at most 10 customers in teh showroom. They are probably good prospects as they have shown up and presented themselves. They are engaging both with the product and with representatives of the company
There would appear to be a blurring of the lines here with virtual worlds. Not the test drive of the real car, but the willingness to engage in a conversation with someone.
This may not suit every product or service, but it would appear to be of value as indicated in this piece.

Patch Lamington

It sounds like a great campaign, and very successful. I have no problems with that - I am not "whimpering about commercializing" Second Life. Rather I'm objecting to rather obvious flouting of existing rules.

To quote the article "they promoted the movie in the Lindens' Welcome Area, where advertising is generally banned"

If advertising is banned in the Welcome Area, then presumably there is a reason for that... and there should be common rules for all.

Whether the rule is "No advertising period" or "Advertising allowed as long as you are polite and have good swag to give away" is OK with me, but whatever it is should be uniformly applied.


Patch, I thihk you are right, the behaviour of the buzz team created by the Second Marketing clearly violates the netiquette of the newbie area; maybe, the problem is that there isn't an authority in SL that coarges with the task of appply the rules.
For converse, I also found this post quite exciting about marketing insights that can be derived from. Companies that leaves SL has always been a sad history of (virtual) white elephants. Empty stores, empty locations, avatars that don't arrive and, if they do, they go away after a little time. But, for God's Sake, why someone would be pleased to stay into a place where there is nothing to do? Why there is not a staff inside a store? Engagement is difficult to obtain, if you don't be propositive. And sitting and waiting for a crowd isn't propositive. Absolutely. In the end, there is at least one marketer that has a different point of view, which understands how SL can be a wonderful platform for starting a VIRAL marketing compaign!
On the other side, it should be noted that(and this is dedicated to the most skeptical SL critics) creating and paying a team of buzz embassadors is cheap respect to building-based marketing efforts; moreover, it recognizes at last that we are speaking of a job, exactly as Public Relations in the real world. Too many companies think that when their employees go on SL, this is just "free-time"!!

Forseti Svarog

I am curious to know what level of engagement actually took place to be counted as an engagement, but in the end I am glad they feel like it was a successful effort. Efforts like this help move the conversation past the oversimplifying obsession around "destination" builds that exists in the media and market.

Nissan's ad agency did something like this on a small scale for the Sentra effort by sending a character from the TV ads (a blinking piece of toast) all around Second Life. I don't think we ever counted the number of avatars though, just the number of virtual cars that people have voluntarily picked up (about 50,000 now I think).

There certainly have been a lot of poor projects in SL, or in many cases, projects that met their objectives but were left to linger and stagnate but the author's potshots are actually misplaced and ignorant. However, it's too big a topic to get into here.

Buzz marketing has a place in SL just as it can be effective in RL, but I still think that one needs to tread carefully so that it does not become spam and a form of marketing griefing. Invading Welcome Areas troubles me, personally.

Of course, if you want to see a really incredible buzz and mobilization campaign in SL, American Cancer Society's Relay for Life is still tops in my book.

Joni West

I thank everyone for their comments about this story. I am the president of This Second Marketing LLC and we are the agency that did the IMAX Harry Potter promotion discussed above. I would like to address the concerns I hear about giving away free promotional items, "Swag" in the areas where there are newbies. First, this is NOT the only place we put our Buzz Agent Teams, but that said, we keep our presence and standards to a very high mark. If you read about the fact that most people who sign up for SL drop out after the first visit or 2, and dig deeper into that, you find that one of the main problems is that people do not know where to go to start living a Second Life. I know this was true for me and for dozens of others that I personally have discussed this with. There are even websites that talk about where you should go when you get into SL because people just can't figure it out. If a newbie is educated enough to use the search tool, which I personally was not in the beginning, they try to go to the popular places and don't realize that the lag is not something they are doing wrong or the norm for SL. People are VERY happy to engage in coversation with friendly avatars who immediately represent themselves as being "Out promoting fill-in-the-blank" and offer free items that would be of value to a newbie as well as landmarks to places to go right away. Our Buzz Agents answer questions for newbies the same way they do when they are on their volunteering time at these places. We do NOT allow our clients to slap a real world type ad in the newbie areas or ANY area of SL. WE think or our Buzz Teams more like the old Welcome Wagon that would visit people when they moved into a new home. They gave out all kinds of advertisements and promotional coupons and items, and people were SO happy to receive these things because they were new in the neighborhood and having a promotional card for dry cleaner near then or could really use a map with the local hardware store highlighted. This is a WIN/WIN. We DON'T support erecting billoards and banner ads in SL, we are a catalyst for commuinity support and one-on-one discussions.

Personally, I would like to see fewer people focusing on negative aspects of SL and spending more time imagining the future of it and contributing to the virtual world...channeling their creative energy into to make it better. I am available for discussion at 415-776-4755
Joni West
SL Identity = Joni Rich

Big brands and companies are GREAT for the future of Second Life. People forget that the reason Soap Operas are called that is because P&G invented them as a marketing tool for selling soap to women who were home all day. Every piece of entertainment that we enjoy on TV is "brought to you by" a major marketer. We buy products and services from these companies and they sponsor the entertainment programs that we want to see. There is a balancing act when it comes to brand sponsorship and brands pushing the product in your face.

We believe we are adding value to Second Life with each and every project we do. We insist that our clients understand that they must add value to the grid and grow community around their brands and activities in a welcoming way. We will not allow a client to try to enter SL to take advantage of the commnunity and the buzz around all things SL.

Osprey Therian


If you are going to be in Second Life and wish to keep your "presence and standards to a very high mark" you might consider not breaking what, to me, are important rules.

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