There has been much in the media recently about how companies are not getting a good return on their investment in virtual worlds and I thought it would be good to try and redress this balance somewhat…
Firstly it should be fairly obvious that most real world companies are merely experimenting with virtual worlds and indeed will invest seed money in many new technologies in the full knowledge that some of them won’t pay off at all, some will turn out to be a great payout in the short term, but most will be pay out something in the medium term, if only in helping the company learn.
The goal of most companies has obviously been marketing so far. I.e. there presence in Second Life amounts to a 3D billboard. There is nothing wrong with this. Like real world billboards, or static webpages, people look for a while and then lose interest. Therefore it’s no wonder that these spaces are not particularly well visited over time. Like gold rush towns in the wild west, they have served their purpose, and likely did make a great return on a relatively small outlay in terms of column inches and marketing publicity in their time, but now are abandoned. Depending on their brand strategy, it might be wise for those companies to remove their SL prescense to avoid damage to the brand. This should not be seen as “abandoning Second Life”, merely that those companies were not particularly committed to virtual worlds in the first place and saw them (very wisely) as currently a great place to do some innovative marketing cheaply.
3) The open space issue
Some people have complained that there is “no one around” when visiting virtual worlds sites. They have assumed that therefore this equates to no-one being interested. When people visit a website, there is no expectation that someone else should be reading the same part of the same page. However, in a virtual world, the page is now a location and there is immediately an unconcious expectation of activity and contact with others. However, there are many factors which make this much less likely than in the real world:
a) virtual worlds persist when their creators have stopped working for the day but are accessible 24 hours/day. I am not going to stay up all night just to say hi to people who drop by!
b) virtual land is MUCH cheaper and easier to build on than real land and is likely to always be so, and therefore people can afford to spread out their building and afford many more locations than they would in the real world. This is especially true of large companies for whom virtual land is relatively very cheap. So logically one would expect large compaies to build large locations (they will feel the need to do something ‘impressive’), but yet this compounds the percieved ‘problem’ of low people density.
4) The population issue / virtual worlds learning curve
Virtual worlds should not be compared (yet) with the latest web2.0 startups. web2.0 companies are largely using the same visual metaphor as all other websites – mouse control, 2dimensionsal interface with some norms about what graphic user controls look like, how links behave etc. Any new user to a 3D virtual world immediately loses all that and has to learn how to control something in an extra dimension. Flying a plane is much harder than driving a car for example, even though the sky is much less densly populated than the ground. That doesn’t mean that it’s not worth anything, it just means that adoption will likely be lower and will take longer.
Flying a plane is much more fun than driving a car.