Archive for the ‘Research’ Category

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Cluetrain Plus 10: my thoughts on theses 88

April 28, 2009

We have better things to do than worry about whether you’ll change in time to get our business. Business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours. Think about it: who needs whom?

Is this still a relevant ‘theses’ ten years on?

Let’s start with ‘business is only a part of our lives. It seems to be all of yours’. There is undoubtedly a gulf between a marketer’s work-life and their social-life. In Marketing and Modernity, an ethnographic study of a Swedish pizza company in the 1990s, Marianne Elisabeth Lien states that ‘practically nobody ever enters the marketing department as consumers. Yet the department is filled with people who are all part-time consumers in their various private capacities(original emphasis). This moment of realisation leads her to conclude that as far as marketers are concerned ‘consumers are the ‘ultimate other’’.

Has anything changed since Lien conducted her fieldwork in 1991/92 long before the internet became the mass phenomenon it is and even longer before global brands took an interest in what the internet could do for them? The answer, on the surface, is probably not. Marketing language may be changing to reflect the latest marketing trends, at least in a supplemental way, but the view most marketers prefer of consumers is the one from a distance. Why is this? At a superficial level it’s probably got a lot to do with the culture of most marketing departments, but at a more profound level it has got more to do with the concept of the ‘consumer’ and where it’s expected to sit in the grand hierarchy of life.

Lots of research companies claim not to like the word ‘consumer’ but ultimately ‘consumer’ is a category we tend to put people in if they don’t work in our industry, after all we might ask them about their family, their job, their hobbies, but inevitably we’re interested in what they buy and why. Of course the interesting thing about the term consumer is that nobody really thinks of themselves as a consumer, we may occasionally find ourselves admitting that we are under duress, but beyond the odd ironic slogan t-shirt we see ourselves as much richer subjects than that implied by the term. Despite the importance of consumption in our lives, we tend to see only the act of making a purchase as consumption, once we get our goods home and put them away in their proper place the act of consumption ceases. In light of this it’s understandable why the term consumer has an underlying pejorative meaning, it suggests an individual who puts more value in the act of purchase itself rather than the value of the object purchased. It’s always been a safe way to maintain the status quo, business is what the clever people do, consuming is what the stupid people do. When David Ogilvy in Confessions of an Advertising Man, published way back in 1963, says ‘the consumer isn’t a moron; she’s your wife’, he’s kidding no-one. But things have changed. The reason marketing teams aren’t encouraged to think like consumers is because all that separates them from the commodity obsessed masses is their sales sheets and knowledge of industry jargon. It’s simply safer to pretend that these tentative pieces of cultural capital will hold the dogs at bay.

For the majority of large businesses the growth of the web has done little to change this attitude, if anything the consumer has become an even more unnerving figure, inevitably distorted through media hype of the latest web trend and its most bizarre accounts. But even the companies founded on the web seem to have a rather ambivalent attitude to their consumers – for example, Facebook’s attempts to monetise users so far has ranged from disastrous to ineffectual. So simply being a successful web brand isn’t enough to guarantee an enlightened attitude to the humble consumer. The even sadder fact is that this attitude isn’t exclusive to business people, the people we classify as consumers think consumers are stupid. The Conversation on the web isn’t quite what it was, even in 1999 The Cluetrain Manifesto lamented the loss of innocence Today, we tend to think of “flaming” as a handful of people vociferously insulting each other online. A certain sense of finesse has largely been lost. In the olden days, a good flame war could go on for weeks or months, with hot invective flying around like rhetorical shrapnel’. Having been a part of the great social network site exoduses of the early 21st century I can remember distinctly the allure of Myspace with its legal band profiles, fully customisable html and I can also distinctly remember the jaded comments of friends who were sick and tired of the spam filled inboxes on Myspace, to whom Facebook was a beacon of light. That a lot of this spam came not from businesses as such but bands, club nights, self promoting individuals is no longer a surprise but it was more so at the time. If the web had been all about the conversations, it was rapidly heading in the direction of self-promotion. It seems that rather than businesses becoming more like consumers, consumers were becoming more like businesses. Thanks to the communicative and distributive tools of the internet anybody could advertise themselves and lots of people did. This trend has only accelerated – players of online games form hierarchical top-down organisations, techies develop apps in their spare time, ebay and amazon encourage people to become virtual stores. Even the less commercially minded will cumulatively spend hours updating profiles and uploading photos. If the sprawling chaos of the Myspace profile was the infomercial, Twitter is the streamlined 30 second ad where detail is less important than impact. No wonder business tries to distance itself from consumers when they threaten to move into the territory they’ve spent so long cultivating as their own.

I’m not saying this is a bad thing, the internet gives us greater control over what we consume and how we consume it and theoretically it’s great that anyone can become a business person, but the manner in which most people go about promoting themselves is rooted in over a century of traditional media and traditional media’s tactics, it suffers from the same problems and assumptions, particularly about what consumers will respond to. Hence the proliferation of spam. In the tradition of alternative histories it could be argued that the past 20 years should be known as The Age of Spam. Unlike advertising which has always been the medium of business, spam is the democratised take on one way messaging en masse. If spam was just the tool of the Viagra sellers then it would simply be another form of advertising, the fact that your friends and acquaintances are also more than happy to participate in a bit of ad hoc spamming is what differentiates it from its predecessors. In fairness to the people of the web, there are few proven alternatives to the traditional media format and let’s face it the traditional media approach works even if it’s far from perfect.

Possibly the greatest threat to businesses then is that it is being gradually commoditised, if everyone can do it then the position of expert is eroded if not erased. Perhaps the most insistent example of this is the music industry. When consumers and bands found that it was possible to distribute music more efficiently than the record companies, the music industry’s status was significantly reduced. The situation is hardly helped by programs like The X-Factor or Britain’s Got Talent where members of the public are raised to pop star status overnight only to be worthless a month later. It suggests that musical ability and talent is something the public at large are just as capable of discovering as the so called experts.

Finally then ‘who needs whom?’ Consumers, or whatever we call them, still need business, so much of our lives is based around the production, distribution and social status of commodities but business is no longer the behemoth it was it is worth only as much as its latest product or ad campaign, business is having to work harder to matter to people. What does business need to do to change this state of affairs? Well The Cluetrain Manifesto argues that business needs to find its human voice, to be genuine, pure, honest, but if the human voice on the web is intractably coloured by decades of marketing speak then it would seem rather foolish for business to attempt to follow this lead. After all it’s very difficult for sprawling corporations to appear genuinely human, a Facebook profile, Youtube page and Twitter account isn’t really enough to convince us of this. Instead business needs to wow us and amaze us like it did in the post war years with its modern miracles. Business is too content to follow trends set by consumers, when it should be starting the trends or at least trying to. Hopefully this would give marketing departments greater confidence in their own abilities rather than feeling like their place in the world has been usurped by the masses and consumer will cease to be such a derisory term. I think when businesses start aiming to be the experts again that then they will be ready to have a real conversation with consumers about what they are doing and what they should be doing because they’ll have an opinion and the confidence to debate its worth.

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Gender ‘swapping’ in MMOs

March 26, 2008

As usual I’m totally late on the subject of this blog entry, namely the Nottingham Trent University study ‘Gender Swapping and Socialising in Cyberspace’ . Richard Bartle provided a fairly damning appraisal of both the newspaper reports of the study and the scientificness of the research on his blog. The problem with reports like this is not so much the failings of the study itself, but the distortion of the findings created by the media response, that inevitably errs on the side of sensationalism. Sure the sample used in the study wasn’t huge and many of its findings repeat those of previous studies, but all in all the conclusion is fairly positive. Richard Bartle points to this article from The Guardian (I’m rapidly losing respect for you, you know) which opens with the quote ‘millions of internet users are using computer games to perform virtual sex changes, according to new research’ which sums up the mainstream media’s attitude. Before I start waffling about my own thoughts on this I want to say that ‘gender swapping‘ is a bloody awful term. The dictionary definition of swapping is ‘to make an exchange’ i.e. one party gives up possession of one item in exchange for another. People who play MMOs do not swap gender. If I choose to play a female Orc, I do not cease to be a human male, my gender doesn’t change. Sure, it sounds like pedantry, but I think it’s important that academics (and the media) acknowledge that identity in online contexts is supplemental – I add something to my identity, but I don’t take anything away. In other words I remain a human, male at core but additionally in World of Warcraft I am a female Orc and a male Tauren.

Why gender has become such an issue in MMO studies is interesting in itself, particularly when players also have the opportunity to play as non-humans of varying degrees and take-up occupations that range from stabbing people in the back to summoning demonic entities. The Guardian can happily announce to the world that MMO players ‘perform sex changes’, but they don’t seem as keen to announce that players can make ‘race changes’ or ‘occupation changes’. Okay, so gender is anchored in real world physiology and culture and therefore seems more relevant to a mainstream media audience, but if as the NTU study suggests that Tomb Raider’s Lara Croft normalised the female avatar than why is it still such a big deal in MMOs? The answer is of course lies with the fact that players interact with one another and are relatively anonymous and it isn’t always clear that a female character is being played by a male player or vice versa. What’s interesting about the findings in the study, is that many of the players who play genders opposite to that of their own, have clearly played genders the same as their own. The women who claim they get less hassle as male characters have clearly experienced hassle as female characters and the male players who play female characters know they’ll get fewer gifts as male characters than female becuase they’ve played male characters. Players make decisions about their characters based on their experiences in the game world, they are not necessarily tied to identity issues they may be having in real life.

This is true not just for gender, but aspects such as race and particularly class as well as things like talent and skill builds. A player of an MMO might start the game playing a healer, only to decide later that they prefer tanking, something they could only learn by playing both classes. That most MMO players have numerous alts is not even touched upon in this study even though it’s a major part of the MMO experience and is surely as relevant to identity as gender. Choice of character is tied to what players want out of the game, the fact that they have choice and the option to play whatever combinations there are available is something exclusive to MMOs. In real-life we might spend our childhood years dreaming of being a fireman, only to find we’re better suited at being an accountant once we reach adulthood, we might possibly go through two or three career changes but our range of experiences is pretty finite. In MMOs this is less problematic, players can experience many lifetimes, from birth (level 1) to retirement, multiple times. Retired characters can also be brought back from retirement and suffer none of the issues of ill health that plague their real life counterparts. What would have made for a more interesting study would have been to look at players’ histories of character development: the number and kind of alts they have, their first character, how often they play their characters, what made them try a new character out and stick with it or abandon it and so on. If academics are going to look at gender in MMOs they need to look at the bigger picture, then they might find that it’s not just female characters that get hassle, so do certain classes and talent builds (e.g. hunters), while some classes are more priveleged, e.g. tanks and healers as well as the pressure players may get from guilds and friends to play certain classes. Pressures aren’t related exclusively to gender but a lot more complex and unlikley issues.

(Edited for shit spelling and poor grammar)

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Tolkien and Peake: The Next Stage of Fantasy Literature

March 12, 2008

I finally got round to watching the second part of the BBC4 series Worlds of Fantasy, after having some issues with the iPlayer which I won’t go into here, I think there are enough complaints about it already. Unfortunately, it took me so long to get round to watching it then writing this that there’s only 10 hours left to catch it (sorry), although the final part of the series was shown last night and should be available on the iPlayer now. Incidentally, what’s with the Spinal Tap-esque volume adjuster on that thing?

So part two focuses on just two fantasy authors, Tolkien (no surprises there then) and Mervyn Peake, who I was very surprised to see included as the only other author. Let’s be totally honest, Tolkien had to be included, even before the success and mainstream appeal of the films he was still, for the majority of people familiar with this genre, the top of the pile. And naturally his name will bring more eyeballs to the screen, which I haven’t got a problem with at all. I wasn’t expecting a Moorcockian trawl through the outer limits of Gothic and Romantic literature (I’m reading his book Wizardy and Wild Romance at the moment, I know for a fact that if I live my lifetime twice I’ll never read all the books he has read) but I was expecting more than just Tolkien, and oh yeah, Peake. In essence what we got was two brief biographies of the authors, looking at what influenced them (Germanic myths, Worcestershire landscape, the horror of war, Arundel Castle) and what their motivations for writing in this genre were. The most interesting element discussed less fully than it could have been was the idea of ‘secondary world creation’ – Middle Earth and Gormenghast were not set somewhere on earth past, present or future or even a dimension parallel to earth from which they could be accessed, they were entirely secluded locations that had their own histories and cosmologies, especially in Middle Earth’s case (which the documentary does cover in a fair bit of depth, although I don’t recall them mentioning the Silmarillion).

I’ve tried to convince myself that it was for this reason that the programme focused on these two authors exclusively. If we look at the other early fantasy authors there is an element of ambiguity about whether or not their worlds are entirely seperate from a fictional version of our own earth or not. Obviously Edgar Rice Burroughs Mars series is set in our universe and Howard’s Conan stories are set on earth albeit in a very different pre-ice age landscape. But what about the other originators of the genre like Jack Vance and Fritz Leiber? Many of their fantasy worlds are distinctly unearthly. I suppose it’s possible that Vance’s Dying Earth is set in the future of our own planet, but never is that made explicit to my knowledge. And there is at least one adventure where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser enter our earth’s past, but this is an exception to the rule. So why were two such influential writers not included? Well, I think it has alot to do with the fact that both Tolkien and Peake were British writers, that Jack Vance and Fritz Lieber are US authors and probably less familiar over here (the Gormenghast TV series from 2000 will have brought some familiarity to the masses) and finally that Lieber and Vance are deemed to have less literary worth in BBC circles.

Given that Tolkien and Peake are described as the ‘grandfathers of modern fantasy’ it would have been nice to have seen a wider range of things thay had influenced. Okay, they mentioned games and actually showed a few clips from Lord of the Rings Online, but I was a bit pissed that they didn’t even mention Dungeons and Dragons or even something like He-Man and the Masters of the Universe (perhaps that would have raised to many questions about the absence of Conan). Strangely enough, and maybe in order to emphasise the point that Peake, though clearly in the shadow of Tolkien, has influenced a crop of contemporary fantasists the show featured some prominent clips of books by China Mieville and Joe Abercrombie, but none say of classic Tolkien-inspired romps like Dragonlance or Tad Williams Memory, Sorrow and Thorn series.

To be fair if I didn’t know a great deal about fantasy authors the program would have been fairly informative if limited in scope. Personally I think that Lieber and Vance would have much more appeal to someone who watched the program because they liked Tolkien, and they have they added bonus of a sense of humour. Speaking of humour apparently tonight’s instalment features Michael Moorcock talking about the influence drugs had on fantasy writing in the 60s, should be interesting.

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‘Engagement’: Virtual Worlds 1 – Social Networking Sites 0

October 11, 2007

In true reportage style, I’m going to start with the bad news. I won’t say too much about the Yankee groups recent assertion that Second Life has failed to live up to its hype, as Wagner Au over at New World Notes has done more than enough to discredit their findings, and the fact that the Yankee group have pulled the report says it all. Again, it concerns me greatly that companies like the Yankee Group are paid large sums of money to comment on something with which they clearly have no experience whatsoever.

In direct contrast to the Yankee groups flawed findings, The Guardian recently reported that Second Life users spent on average 5 hours 29 minutes per month in-world in contrast to Facebook users who on average spent but 2 hours 32 minutes using the software in the UK. Linden Labs metrics suggest this figure is significantly higher, which suggests that Nielsen//Net Ratings may have made a similar mistake to that of the Yankee group.

Anyone interested or involved with virtual worlds will likley be unsurprised by this ‘finding’, after all the famous ’20 hours a week’ average for MMO players is touted with some frequency. But I wonder what the time spent playing figures are like for the growing market of casual MMOs (Barbiegirls, Club Penguin, Habbo etc.) touted as the next big things by various virtual world luminaries? Traditional MMOs, like World of Warcraft, Lord of the Rings Online, EVE Online etc. have always been seen as the choice of the more hardcore gamer who spends a lot of time gaming anyway, and the same is probably true of the majority Second Life users so I have my doubts that a more casual audience will match the dedication these kinds of players show.

But of course, hardcore gamers are a minority and gaming per se is still a relatively engagement intensive activity. This article in The Escapist points out what the economic benefits of casual gaming are, but what about the ‘attention economy’? Interestingly during the keynote speech yesterday at the virtual worlds conference Chris Sherman asked “how do you make the user experience work for users with short attention spans” in reference to the apparent success of kids virtual worlds. There is clearly some concern that just like Heelies or Friendster a given virtual world will just be flavour of the month and then disappear into obscurity, but for now the strength of virtual world platforms over social network sites lies in the of overlooked fact that they look like and contain games. The concern should be that social networking sites will realise this and bring virtual world features into their friendship oriented environments, as many of the apps on Facebook  already do.

Of course crossover virtual world platforms like Metaplace might iron out these distinctions, and virtual world Scenecaster has already launched its app on Facebook (that as yet I haven’t got working!) so such a distinction might be moot. The competition might end up relying on which company can bring out the next ‘must-explore’ virtual world.

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The Rules of Convergence (or at least a start): Part 2

July 6, 2007

Continuing from yesterday’s post…

5. Collaborative
Collaborative interaction is where users come together to decide upon the worth of content or create content together. Obvious examples would be Digg and Wikipedia, but polls constitute the least involving example. Beyond polls this is the kind of interactivity most brands/IPs/Franchises have rarely experimented with. Penguin books are one of the few brands to attempt this with their Millions of Penguins wiki book. This medium currently lends itself most easily to written interaction, so would appeal to IPs/franchises open to fanfiction fpr example, but there is plenty of scope for wiki based collaboration on any number of topics. Like social interaction there are obviously censorship and editing issues that need to be considered, so it is important to have consistent admins who can monitor the situation. MMOs like Second Life and World of Warcraft also offer the opportunity for colloboration – in the former building sims is far easier and less time-consuming when their are many hands working on a project, in the latter content such as instances and PvP require group collaboration to acheive success.

6. Ludic
Gameplay is one of the simplest forms of interactivity, but can also be one of the most compelling. Many brands/IPs/franchises have simple games on their websites and although there are no statistics to my knowledge on the level of user engagement with them, the growth in casual gaming suggests that they could be very successful. One of the benefits games offer is the chance to reward users, even as simple a form as ‘points’ or a ‘position’ on a scoreboard, rewards build loyalty and increase stickiness as many users we will to ‘beat’ their own scores and so on. However games alos offer the opportunity to reward users with virtual objects or currency with which they can improve their gameplay chances or even that can be translated into real life rewards. Anyone doubting the value of virtual goods should read this Techcrunch article to be reassured. Games come in so many forms ranging from story driven to abstract that virtually any brand/franchise/IP can build a game based on its features.

7. Narratively
Narrative interactivity is the experience the user gets of being part of a ‘story’. Interactive mediums such as computer games are very good at situating the user in a storyline or context, particularly when they’re based on or adaptations of movie franchises. Clearly this kind of interactivity is more suited to narrative driven media, such as fictional IPs, there is no reason why brands can’t construct narratives around their product or service (think adverts).

8. Consumptive
Although consumption is usually seen as a ‘passive’ and non-interactive experience, but this is not strictly the truth, traditionally this is the level at which most people have interacted with brands and there is certianly no reason why this should cease to be a part of the interactive formula. As online successes such as Amazon and Ebay, books like The Long Tail and the Techcrunch article I link to above prove new technological mediums offer new ways to sell goods, virtual or otherwise. Ringtones proved it in the mobile phone market a short while ago, now games appear to be the new downloadable must-have. Interactive mediums can allow for different kinds of consumption, more convenient and more personal, it’s a big step in the evolution of comsumption so companies should explore all the options available and be very willing experiment with this option.

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The Rules of Convergence (or a start at least ): Part 1

July 5, 2007

Hopefully this blog entry won’t come across as too misleading, I’m sure I’m not alone in despising those articles that purport to give conclusive answers to the burning issue of the day only to leave you with the vague feeling that you knew all that already.

In a meeting with the head of a very well know youth oriented media company I had a chart with the words ‘transmedia research’ at its centre, which was greeted with a mocking snort – what buzzword were we going to use next, ‘UGC’, he laughed. We even provided a concrete example of a ‘transmedia’ research project in action which didn’t seem to impress him either.

Strangely enough said youth media company already have a virtual world (two in fact!) but the UK arm of the company hadn’t experimented with them, and to be honest seemed fairly ill-informed about their status.

Henry Jenkins‘ book, Convergence Culture, in all its indisputable genius is only the starting point for the convergence, transmedia, UGC etc debate. Many of Henry’s brilliant examples come from the 90s when the web was less dynamic and less popular and when gaming and MMOs were still finding their footing. Today every action/blockbuster movie release comes with its own dollar-heavy game tie in and flash heavy website. TV is following suit – The History Channel and 24 have adapated computer games to expand their IPs and The L Word has perhaps one of the most successful sites on Second Life, even ‘world events’ become transmedia translatable.

But being a transmedia brand isn’t easy and there are probably more experiments that fail to live up to their expectations than outright successes – in the worlds of MMOs three huge franchises will immediately spring to mind (The Matrix Online, Star Wars Galaxies and The Sims Online for those not in the know). But in reality this isn’t a million miles away from brand extension in the oh so old fashioned world of FMCG (fast moving consumer goods for those not in the know). Moving into a new product category has always been a difficult process – brands become renowned for doing one kind of thing and it takes an awful lot of clout to persuade people they can do something else just as well. Success stories abound, but that’s only because failure is quickly forgotten, but I’ve worked on many projects where a new product doesn’t even see the light of day, such are the responses in research. What works for some brands such as supermarket chains like Tesco’s, Asda, Walmart or even Amazon, isn’t going to work for a non-supermarket brand that can’t guarantee a captive audience and low price margins.

The difference with transmedia brand extensions, is, well the medium. Moving into a digital medium whether we’re talking websites, computer games, MMOs or social networks requires that the most is made of each medium, and perhaps digital mediums’ strongest feature is ‘interactivity’. ‘Interactivity’ isn’t a word most marketing departments are familiar with and it probably sounds very vague, which to be totally honest it is. Interactivity isn’t the solution it just frames the way you think about something.

For example, in this promo video for the Transformers computer game Brian Goldner, chief operating officer (whatever that means) for Hasbro says “you get to immerse yourself in the experience where almost anything becomes a tool of the Autobots or a tool of the Decepticons, buildings, cars you name it”. Interactivity for an action film is, or rather can be, very simplistic (but very effective), and has the benefit of years and years of development in the computer games industry. Since Doom showcased the BFG, a gun that could obliterate a room full of demons without scratching the paintwork, the desire for a fully interactive environment has been one of the holy grails of the gaming industry and is only now being realised by the likes of Lucasarts and Crytek studios.

But different brands/IPs/franchisesand different mediums require different kinds of interactivity, and it requires ome consideration to decide which kind works best and what is credibly attainable. As a start I’ve broken interactivity into eight (four in this post, four in part 2) different types and explained their benefits and the mediums they are most suited to.

1. Experiential
Experiential interactivity is physical interaction with a ‘world’ or setting and is the core element of FPS, adventure, RPG and strategic computer games and most MMOs. Obviously the choice of which elements of a ‘world’ or setting are interactive depend on the brand/IP/franchise, for example the Transformers game mentioned above focuses on the ability to use environmental objects as weapons whereas a game based on a food brand would focus on something different, maybe creating recipes, exploring production culture and processes etc. Experiential interactivity is naturally suited to action franchises, but games such as The Sims and MMOs such as Second Life prove that this needn’t be the case.

2. Responsive
Responsive interactivity is the interaction between users and brand/IP/franchise owners, where the owners will actively change features based on user suggestions or at least acknowledge suggestions and explain why such changes aren’t possible. This is probably one of the most difficult concepts for many companies to get their heads around but can be one of the most rewarding. It is perhaps better suited to digital environments where changes can be made relatively cheaply and quickly as opposed to physical products or organisational structures that require more time and resources to alter. For example the Second Life community at the L Word has a suggestions box and on site staff from Electric Sheep will build features for the site such as swimming pools and McDonalds has recently added the ‘Make Up Your Own Mind’ website to its roster. Blogs are also avenues through which responsiveness can be realised in the form of individual acknowledgement if not through affecting actual change.

3. Creative
A fairly self explanatory example of interactivity that allows users to create their own content in the manner of Youtube or Second Life, but also includes lesser known examples such as fanart, fanfiction, modding, machinima, mashups. Like responsiveness creative interactivity is counterintuitive to the production driven mindset of most companies, not to mention the legal issues that can arise. The range of creative avenues open to brands means that most brands/IPs/franchises can make use of this technique. In fact computer games and MMOs probably struggle the most with this kind of interactivity, often putting strict limits on what can be created in game (of course ‘external’ creativity such as machinima, fanart, modding etc. are possible). Currently creative interaction tends to be used in controlled promotions like Coca Cola’s Virtual Thirst competition in Second Life. An act of creative interaction on a greater scale would of course be Counter Strike, an entire game built by fans using the Half Life computer game engine.

4. Social
Social interactivity is again fairly self-explanatory, it describes any platforms that allow users to communicate with other users. This can range from forums to 3D spaces such as MMOs to social networking sites. While these technologies are fairly simple to set up, the difficulty resides in creating a dedicated community. Some brands/franchises/IPs have pre-existing fanbases who are actively engaged in debate and discussion others will always struggle to attain this level of interest, for example a popular movie franchise is more likely to be able to develop social interaction than a popular FMCG brand. The biggest barrier to social interaction for most brands is one of inappropriate language and sensitivity to criticism. This issue is greater for asynchronous communication such as forums where messages can be read long after they were posted, than synchronous communication which is fleeting and private. Forum communities often end up moving to ‘un-official forums’ where they can be critical and abusive as they like. While removing off-topic and offensive material is acceptable on most counts, brands/IPs/franchises who want to build a strong social interactive element will have to prepare to be tough skinned or develop a synchronous communication approach so that unacceptable material leaves little mark on the brand.

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On Making it Work in SL

July 2, 2007

Couple of very interesting blog entries on RL companies making or breaking it in Second Life. Grace McDunnough got the ball rolling with this piece and Linda Zimmer takes the baton with her piece on Business Communicators of Second Life.

Their views echo many of my own, although I wouldn’t go as far as saying that ‘all businesses are struggling or failing’ – at this moment in time there is little to judge success against, although it’s fair to say that many business’s efforts are rather lacklustre to say the least.

Grace suggests that there are three simple rules for success in the form of ‘dialogue’, ‘interaction’ and ‘engagement’ which I wholeheartedly agree with. I’ve summarised my own thoughts on them below along with a couple of other issues that I think need debating more.

1 Dialogue:

Grace says that:

“Dialogue often requires that you actually be present, unlike an asynchronous web presence, and many instances of news about corporate presence in Second Life indicate that they are too devoid of people. If dialogue is a requirement, then just getting in the game presents a challenge for large corporation”

Now, there are no perfect examples as yet, but in my frequent visits to Reuters I’ve seen Adam and Eric Reuters there on several occasions. Blenda Twang at the L Word must never sleep she’s there so often and this weekend’s Secondfest is exemplary – Aleks Krotoski herself was present at the opening and numerous members of Rivers Run Red where there throughout the festival giving away freebies and helping lost and confused festival-goers out.

Now, although I’m at an early stage in my research, what’s interesting about sites where there are regular, sociable presences is that people come back. Second Life can be a big empty lonely place, and knowing that there will be chatty people around is a big pull.

2 Interaction:

On this subject Grace says:

“Assuming you’ve cleared the dialogue hurdle, the next question is “Can you walk the talk?”. A few large corporate builds in Second Life seem to think that interaction is achieved by putting in a rollercoaster or a ski slope… Interaction is the process of employing the artifacts of the dialogue practically to affect change”

This is probably the most difficult for element for corporate sites to deal with – the industry model has been focused on the delivery products/services to consumers from its inception, marketers have been trained to think in these terms making very difficult to apply a different business model. The worst offenders on this count are those branded sites that treat their visitors as nothing more than consumers and take no advantage of the 3D environment of Second Life. There are many sites that go some way to providing interactivity, Pontiac and Nissan let you drive cars around, ABC has a sandpit where you can practice building things, The L Word offers avatars cast in the likeness of the TV show characters and access to simulated locations from the show. But there is nothing on the scale of a Wikipedia or Youtube.

The problem lies with lack of imagination and familiarity with the medium as well as Second Life’s current technological limitations. Personally I think an awful lot can be learned from computer game/MMO designers and story writers, but I’ve gone on about this alot in previous posts. The good news is that AI in Second Life is improving and this will surely improve interactivity as well as the overall experience of Second Life.

3 Engagement:

As Grace says if you get the first two right this one should follow, in fact you could describe engagement as the measure of how successful the first two points are. Linda Zimmer comes to the crux of the problem here when she sayd that ‘there is generally no mechanism – and not enough human resources – to be accountable for the quality of a connection point’. The solution of course lies in building a loyal community, that way there doesn’t have to be a 24/7 official presence users will do it for them. Of course the community needs to be not only passionate about the brand, but sociable, friendly and informative, the community can’t develop into a clique, but that’s another post.

By way of conclusion I think there are a couple more points that need to be considered. The first is salience another overused marketing word, but at this point in Second Life’s existence one that is pretty pertinent. Most corporate entities who enter Second Life begin so with a fanfair of PR and press releases, followed by abject silence. It doesn’t take much to get into the headlines where Second Life is concerned, but somehow most brands fail to make the most of this opportunity. Consistent salience is good because it builds awareness and people will visit the site and meet other like-minded people there. The use of community registration portals is one way to guarantee salience and a steady follow of visitors, as are very clear SLURLs, newbies in particular need as much guidance as possible.This leads to the second point and that is innovation (yes, another marketing buzzword). It’s no good if month after month, nothing changes and nothing new is added. Second Life prides itself on freedom ‘to do’ and corporate sites need to exercise that freedom as much as, if not more than, any user. In RL companies are constantly innovating, or at least striving to, and the online world, supposedly more dynamic and up to date, should be a priority here. Innovation also provides a good opportunity to build PR!