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Second Life meets WebEx

Most B2B marketers use WebEx, or some other electronic meeting program, to meet with their customers. And most marketers are at least dimly aware of Second Life—some marketers are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to buy an island and construct a presence in that virtual world. To me, there is a big gap in between the way we collaborate with existing customers and the way we attract new customers—that’s what I want to explore today.


Some of you might find the comparison of WebEx and Second Life odd—they don’t strike you as even being in the same realm. But I think they are very related. Let’s look at their real-world counterparts.
Second Life is a virtual world, they say—a community of people that interact with each other. To a marketer, Second Life is a place to be just because customers are there. So, you can have a presence in Second Life that attracts attention no different from having a billboard on a busy highway. But Second Life can be much more than that. It can be like a mall kiosk where you can show your message to a individual customer in an interactive way, or it can be a virtual showroom or branch office, where customers can interact with your personnel live the same way they would call on the phone and chat. Or you can put on seminars.
IBM is putting on conferences and seminars in Second Life, which seems very similar, in some ways, to a WebEx Webinar. Oh sure, there are avatars and other niceties in Second Life, but slides are slides and talking heads are talking heads.
What’s the real difference between Second Life conferences and WebEx Webinars? I think it is mostly the relationship with the attendees. Second Life lends itself more to the pop-in, the person who has no relationship and who might even prefer to be anonymous. Second Life has more of a tendency to be like the booth in the trade show—no schedule, no time commitment—just show up when you want and stay as long as you like.
WebEx Webinars tend to be more structured. You need an invitation to come. You must register and tell who you are to be there. You must do it in advance. You tend to have a relationship with the customer, either before or after the event.
Suppose there was something in between? Something that allowed the pop-in and that had the rich interactive experience of Second Life with the relationship aspects of WebEx? I saw something that fits the bill yesterday, called Unisfair.
Unisfair allows a business to set up events—one-time events like Webinars or days-long events like trade shows that can be “manned” months after they conclude—where people can show up and stay as long as they like, but they are not anonymous. They are invited to a secure area where they have the richness of a virtual world but also the control of an experience out of the public eye.
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Take a look at these screen shots from an event held by National Instruments this past May. In years past, the company held a 15-city road tour, shipping equipment, people, demonstrations, signs (you get the idea) hither and yon. This year they held a virtual conference instead, which attracted more attendees (900, who stayed almost three hours on average) and cost less than the shipping costs for last year. You can see from the screen shots of the entrance area that it has the Second Life, avatar, virtual world kind of feeling, but it is a fully-contained, private virtual environment where the event manager can control who comes in and can track the movements and activities of each attendee.
The conference area screen shot looks a lot closer to a Webinar, however.Musician's Friend personalized for guitar customers You can use video, audio, animation, or any mode necessary to get your message across.
In April, Hewlett-Packard used Unisfair for its OpenView User Group conference, running 24 hours a day to “follow the sun” and serve attendees in 97 countries. Brent Arslaner, Unisfair’s Vice President of Marketing, says that its events are different than flesh-and-blood conferences, but that some marketers have found that attendees are “more frank than in a virtual environment than for in-person events.” Perhaps it’s because they are more focused in using their time well while they sit at their desk, so they get to the point faster. Maybe it is because they feel more able to break off the conversation at any point. Unlike trade shows, marketers can make busy high-level people available to “work the booth” while sitting at their desks doing other things, a far cry from the entry-level folks you often find in real-life trade shows. Regardless, interactions are more detailed and more focused online. “It will never replace face-to-face,” says Brent, where body language and other social situations allow different evaluations to be made. But private virtual worlds appear to be claiming an important middle ground amidst real-life events, Second Life islands, and Webinars.
One reason is cost. These events clearly cost less than real-life events and they probably cost less than buying an island and paying an agency to set up a public Second Life presence. Another reason is metrics—measuring anything in Second Life is a huge issue at the moment. (Marshall Sponder has written frequently on this subject.) Private virtual worlds get the metrics built in, similarly to the way every trade show has a way to capture and count attendees and business cards at booths.
As marketers, we need to be aware of each of these emerging ways to interact with our target markets and understand the strengths and weaknesses of each. It seems to me that private virtual worlds have some strong qualities that will help them carve a niche in the savvy online marketing plan.

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Mike Moran

Mike Moran is an expert in digital marketing, search technology, social media, text analytics, web personalization, and web metrics, who, as a Certified Speaking Professional, regularly makes speaking appearances. Mike’s previous appearances include keynote speaking appearances worldwide. Mike serves as a senior strategist for Converseon, an AI powered consumer intelligence technology and consulting firm. He is also a senior strategist for SoloSegment, a marketing automation software solutions and services firm. Mike also serves as a member of the Board of Directors of SEMPO. Mike spent 30 years at IBM, rising to Distinguished Engineer, an executive-level technical position. Mike held various roles in his IBM career, including eight years at IBM’s customer-facing website, ibm.com, most recently as the Manager of ibm.com Web Experience, where he led 65 information architects, web designers, webmasters, programmers, and technical architects around the world. Mike's newest book is Outside-In Marketing with world-renowned author James Mathewson. He is co-author of the best-selling Search Engine Marketing, Inc. (with fellow search marketing expert Bill Hunt), now in its Third Edition. Mike is also the author of the acclaimed internet marketing book, Do It Wrong Quickly: How the Web Changes the Old Marketing Rules, named one of best business books of 2007 by the Miami Herald. Mike founded and writes for Biznology® and writes regularly for other blogs. In addition to Mike’s broad technical background, he holds an Advanced Certificate in Market Management Practice from the Royal UK Charter Institute of Marketing and is a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Virginia’s Darden School of Business. He also teaches at Rutgers Business School. He is a Senior Fellow at the Society for New Communications Research. Mike worked at ibm.com from 1998 through 2006, pioneering IBM’s successful search marketing program. IBM’s website of over two million pages was a classic “big company” website that has traditionally been difficult to optimize for search marketing. Mike, working with Bill Hunt, developed a strategy for search engine marketing that works for any business, large or small. Moran and Hunt spearheaded IBM’s content improvement that has resulted in dramatic gains in traffic from Google and other internet portals.

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