by: Gary Hayes
or thirteen non-exhaustive tips for organisations considering becoming stars in the new web 3.0 revolution…
I have mentioned before that I am currently working on a couple of major and one or two minor media companies first forays into the metaverse, or its most accessible incarnation Second Life. I can’t talk about them directly of course pre-launch so I thought why not create a ’simple’ guide for brand owners using a couple of recent Second Life launches AOL (today) and the LWord (last week). What follows are thirteen basic principles for brand and property owners as they create a virtual presence in any multi user virtual environment which really came about from my own work in the past year considering what works and what doesn’t, combined with an observation of some of the ‘commonalities’ in many recent more mature brand launches. Some of this also cross relates to a post I did mid last year on how to achieve immersion and these are not focussed on ‘formats’ or new forms of entertainment that I cover elsewhere.
I have chosen AOL and LWord because the former is quite a broad media company without a clear single identity and the LWord because it is has a very narrow and defined identity but also as I was the line producer on an eTV version a couple of years ago. Another reason is that both are implemented by Electric Sheep and it is obvious they are developing their own little ‘format’ bible. The recent entries inworld from NBC, Reuters, Dell, Endemol (Big Brother) and MTV on the there.com platform all follow these basic principles which I illustrate below - some more than others. This will be a broad brushstrokes introduction as I don’t want to put the growing number of companies and one-avatar-and-their-virtual-dog operations out of business. I also don’t expect any self respecting brand to try to do this without contracting a company with significant experience either, the social, environmental, game/play, scripting, design aspects of this are very unchartered and it is critical to engage those who at least have some semblance of a map. Anyway on we go.
1 Don’t Become Virtual Just Because You Can
By way of an introduction a cautionary note. Sure there is a certain PR cache, trendy or super cool in being one of the first to participate a new kid on the emerging media block. Every second week there is a new ‘celebrity’ entrant and although I personally think in the medium/long term these worlds will be come commonplace for business, entertainment and education, we should view most of the current raft of services as experiments. The old ‘build it and they will come’ adage is risky at the moment when there is only around 40-50 000 concurrent users across all the fully rendered avatorial based ‘non-game’ virtual worlds. There are a lot of empty streets across the ‘branded’ grid and these early entrants are either in for the strategic long haul or just grabbing a smaller and smaller slice of the Second Life press pie. On the positive side though the learning that comes from each incremental new service is part of building a robust and longer term metaverse for all. There are many who say SL is purely about sex or money (just like the real world then, big revelation there) and that brands are not invited. I used to have the same view until I realised that without some form of organisational presence, educational purpose or celebrity event Second Life was really going nowhere - a glamourised chat room. New ‘brand’ entrants need to realise that they are to a great extent last minute guests at a party and as such need to bring something significant to it. It doesn’t have to be about sex or money but it should definitely be about new experiences and play.
2 Make Joining Simple, Accessible and Branded
One could think of Second Life particularly as the walled garden portal that hosts the content that comes from individuals and companies/organisations. A sign of maturity is creating a way for niche or interest audiences a way to participate without their feet actually touching the ‘aggregator’. So we are seeing as in the L Word example below ways to use exposed APIs to register and download the client without going to Second Life at all. This simplifies the relationship initially for these existing brand loyal audiences, sure it gets complicated later when they realise there is a sea of potentially more interesting ’stuff’ in lorry loads, but the entry is far more elegant.
3 Once In World - Hold Their Hand, With Your Brand
A third part making the ‘birthing’ process easier for ‘newbs’ is to drop them into familiar surroundings. Their beloved stars (in the case of L Word) telling them how to get the best out of the world. The Linden orientation is simply a ‘tech manual’ approach, its fun, but is still about which buttons to press, the L Word version is ultimately clearer, because most of it is about making your avatar look presentable.
You can see other orientation islands and in the foreground here a simple circular path with very, very basic instructions. Given the audience are likely to be the metro-sexual crowd, we must expect lots of time to preen their avatars. It would have been good to incorporate this as part of the main environment, but I suppose this could be considered the dressing room and rehearsal space before ‘going on air’, where you are the star.
In my experience many RL people spend the majority of their first week tweaking their image, quite naturally, so the L Word (E Sheep) have provided as you can see in the last image in this category four orientation islands, just in case there is a sudden rush of a couple of hundred avatars. Really that is the fourth ‘entrance’ tip, make sure you can handle a rush for the door. People who are bounced rarely return so have enough ‘welcome’ zones, just in case.
4 Design Multiple Levels of Navigation
When people arrive in the main environment you should think of it as a metaphorical homepage. You must make several things clear. All that’s available for them to do (not consume), how to get to these places, a feel of the ‘world’ they are entering and lots and lots of ‘why’ they should stay and explore. The welcome/arrival area should ideally have eyeline to the main sites too. So central and raised is the usual deal. AOL’s environment feels a little like a Disney-type theme park (fun fair) and is laid out that way. Its general theme of entertainment is echoed in the overall consistent colour palette, the signage, the walkways and slight sense of discovery - if everything is telegraphed there is the alternative problem that avatars will think they don’t need to explore cause the labelling is too ’samey’. This could be an issue with AOL’s signage below - which is a shame cause they do have a few surprises - see point 7.
5 Decide Early On Your USP
I am glad to announce that the last few ‘brands’ that have entered Second Life have moved away from building the office blocks and sticking their logo on the outside, with only a very slight nod to where they are. Thanks to developers who are growing in experience virtually all the new entrants have one or two new things, never before seen. Some are very superficial, some are just ‘ the best implementation of…”. AOL have decided to create a few ‘lets be the best at that…” items such as a fully branded skate-boarding area.
Complete with piped Real Life skateboard championships as you tumble around the heavily graffiti park. One wonders about sport in SL. This is a long way from Tony Hawks as the performance of SL servers and client are just not up to it (unless really optimised - meaning a whole sim to skateboarding only). So these are social spaces, skateboard for a few minutes, then find a corner and chat about it. This must be built in and planned for. See later.
Another fun item which falls in the ‘only one in SL’ bracket could be this other simple offering from AOL, the avatar ’sticky wall. ‘Physical’ activity needs to be sprinkled across any offering, forcing quests and mind games all very important. This is about delivering an eclectic range of services vs something too narrow in focus.
One of the L Words USPs is the speed dating tables in the central part of their main island. This feels much like Big Brother that I blogged about earlier in that it is an already unnatural social interplay now with the added layer of being virtual and partly anonymous. I haven’t tried speed dating in SL but I suspect inside the ‘virtuality’ of L Word and (as you can see on the instructions here) if it is moderated well, it could be a great way to meet ‘new’ friends. SL is like any ‘club/bar’ situation not an ideal way of finding romantic or like-minded partners, Showtime are moving in the right direction with this.
Torrid Midnight of the SecondCast team and a leading fashion designer, is one of the first to try out the skateboard park which launched today.
6 Make sure the Environment has Synergy with the Brand
Now we can all imagine (I have been there hundreds of times) the discussions that take place when a group sits down to make any existing property ‘immersive’. The ‘we could do that!’, how about recreating one of those and so on. Many metaverse entrants insist on identical duplication, or model building of corporate buildings (NBC Rockefeller) or the actual TV sets as in the L Words version of the Planet Cafe below.
I am not going to dwell to much on over representational builds as I covered that in a post a year ago, but just to say that there are two ways to go here and the middle ground is the dangerous one. The brand should either be in your face and as precise a copy as possible of something that clearly represents the brand (or the context) or something such as Vodaphone’s build (a large megaphone, hearing aid) slightly surreal and tiping their hat to this ‘naturally’ strange world, where anything, seriously is possible. I still yawn a bit at the endless brick walled buildings, blue glass and ‘mall’ness to many of the current builds, but I am also aware first hand of the number of suits in companies who ‘need’ something recognisable and enough branded signs scattered around the place. As an example the easiest option would be for say a French brand to place a model of the Eiffel Tower on their sims, the more brave route is to create something ‘new’ and unique, a place you enjoy going back to. I personally have ‘done’ the real Eiffel tower on at least five trips, I have no real urge to do it again but I absolutely love the ‘essence’ of the French countryside such as Provence though. I wont go on as I will be exploring environmental identity in virtual worlds and what makes some more sticky than others, in a Terra Nova post in the next couple of months.
7 Be Sensitive to The World - Playful, Deliver Expectation and Have Depth
Now for the key ingredients for all new entrants into these spaces. It must deliver expected features in ‘island’ sims such as shops, cinemas/screens, dance areas and even branded things to buy. It is no different than being a tourist to a distant island and feeling that the environment is self-contained. Another major requirement is all visitors need to play/do and even in a ‘no rules’ game like Second Life, you can create smaller, casual games, particularly social ones.
Here AOL provide the staple branded clothing. I have never seen any figures in how many people actually buy this stuff, but I have also never seen avatars wearing non-fashion branded clothing (apart from Torrid above). Perhaps I need to get out more
The quiz in the AOL sim is really good fun. It feels like interactive TV inside a virtual world. Simple multiple choice (the four colour selector - just like fast text keys in UK iTV), timer based questions and a top scorer board on the left. This would be great in a more ‘organic’ pub environment vs the rather board room look and feel here.
Virtually all new branded sims have the dance club/bar combination. For the L Word it works very well and when I was there, it had a constant churn of people. I think part of it is just checking out for reference what are the best clubs to landmark but part of this one is the obvious lesbian overtones. Yes all the avatars in there were female. The club itself was pretty dark and dismal and not on my return list.
The layout of the L Word sim I found a little disappointing. It had a similar feel to the there.com Laguna Beach (I blogged about in Sept), as the stores and buildings were just a little spread out and hidden. Even flying you felt things were disconnected and fragmented. It is important to make sure that although avatars will expect stores, and appropriate ones, that they should be integrated and not glued on as an afterthought.
Most of the shops for the L Word were indeed skins, clothes and various relationship ‘toys’.
8 Make the Experience as Personal as Possible
As I have indicated before in my web 3.0 posts, inside these worlds there is already a rampant web 2.0 paradigm. Avatars want to share and blog their experiences (I know I do whenever I get time). So in any build that has that first ‘wow’ factor about it, make sure there are enough places that allow the users to get the word out (that’s assuming you want traffic). The actual SL interface has much of this built in, but it is buried inside profiles and not where most viewing is - in the real web 2.0 world. So AOL have set up simple sets to take pictures of yourself and drop them onto the AOL blog site. In fact there are a few points where they encourage this, the sticky wall for example. To drive traffic to your virtual space you need to have lots and lots of content placed outside in the web 2.0 space.
One of my favourite bits of the AOL sim from a personalization perspective is the walk of stars for two reasons. One of them is the first picture on this post, a way to leave your mark, collect a copy of the star (because it will be erased by the next avatar of course) and take your picture just like a real ’star’. The other thing that impressed me was the way a path can be made compelling. I spent as much time reading all the funny SL variants or real world stars names than I did in the whole rest of the sim. Partly because there were a few chucklers, partly because of the depth (a lot of effort from the Electric Sheep had gone into thinking them up as Johnny Ming told me) but mostly because they felt more integrated than everything else. They were embedded in the environment vs being stuck on or in like everything else.
9 If You Are Going to Provide Content Give Enough Choice
As a brand AOL is known as a kind of one-stop-entertainment-shop. So it was no surprise to see lots and lots of content in the various viewing halls and on screens in hidden corners. There was some disconnect here though as the sign outside in the first picture here says ‘millions of high quality videos’ and once inside the option is from a rolling list of about ten. So the outside the environment corporate message is lost inworld. The two have to be aligned. A message like the ‘worlds largest new network’ over a two floor brick office inworld, has a disconnect. Make the inworld messages appropriate and have a proportional scale and those that refer to the real world, clearly make that obvious.
10 Make Inworld Advertising as Integrated as Possible
Companies have seemed to be a little nervous about product placement and advertising from other companies in their spaces. This seems odd to me as in many situations such as the skateboard park below adverts actually work very well, especially ones for inworld services. I suspect that the ad departments in the respective companies look at the raw numbers and think that 3rd party adds will dilute their brand. I suspect there is a little truth in that, but a world without adverts embedded in places you expect them becomes quite paradoxically empty and missing something. This is not a flip-flop statement for me because I have always said ‘appropriate’ advertising vs ads rotating on fifty meter hoardings above residential areas, or above malls dropped alongside a peaceful beach retreat.
11 Be There In Person, Communicate and Learn
Any entrant into these worlds must, and I stress this, must have a constant personal presence. This is not the web. Put up your website and sit back and watch the page views, this is real people expecting to talk to the creators or the brand owners or especially the stars (or people role playing the stars). For AOL’s launch today we have Morton from Electric Sheep and Johnny Ming (of SecondCast again) and now Electric Sheep too. Both are happy to talk but their primary reason for being there is too see how things are used, if people are not getting to their ‘jewel’, how long they spend on the ‘activity’ that they thought would keep them occupied for hours and so on. Never before have we had this sort of ‘research detail’. This is the equivalent of getting inside the mind of the person using your homepage or site for the first time. You can follow them around, ask them why they went left rather than right. I won’t go on cause this will be another Terra Nova post when I am guest there in a month or so.
Adam Ramona and I chat with Johnny Ming about making Second Cast a little more arty, amongst other things.
12 Have as Much Content as Possible Inworld and Not on Weblinks
OK. Second Life is a pain when it comes to getting content into it. I spend most of my time importing textures (images to place around sites), sounds and animations. Getting web pages and RSS feeds is clunky to say the least. The easiest option is to just link out of SL to the default web browser of the user. There are no alternatives to this really but the temptation should be avoided to make every single item a link to a web browser, because simply the user will realise that the place is actually quite empty as they are spending most time on an external website. This is not rocket science. The user has made a concious decision to boot up a resource intensive 3D virtual world browser and not to browse the fast super efficient 2D web. They want social interchange and experiential activity not a bunch of branded web pages. Just as people say ‘oh I could never watch a full length feature film on my mobile’ there are several truths here. Avatars:
1 Will not click through and read more than a few pages of text on ‘your’ site.
2 They will generally will not watch long form movies, unless it is a pre-arranged social gathering. Short 1-4 mins only
3 Previews of audio and video are best, but make sure there is enough there to surprise them and ‘make’ them want to click to the web to discover more and possibly buy
4 Will only blog and send pictures to external sites (yours and theirs) if it is transparent and simple in your space. Take a picture, click this button, chat your blog text. Anything that involves putting notecards into objects, or crossing to a webpage forget it.
5 Enjoy anything that has a live’ness, a happening now in the real and virtual world. The nearer to a database driven website the virtual space is the more of a turnoff it will be. Sims should have lots of randomness scattered about. Sound that changes and shifts, images that tick over on ad hoardings, a sense of life, creatures and so on. This to me is all about content as well. Organising events on a regular basis is fine but they need to join your main group and this should be a priority at the beginning.
For brands that have no specific identity such as AOL, then something may have to be created for them. A virtual world incarnation of their 2D web ‘portal’ness, which I mentioned earlier. They went for the entertainment themepark, they could have easily gone for a vision of the future or a journey into the past, something abstract and unworldly, played with scale or just recreated a part of San Francisco.
13 Give the Environment Identity Make Social Activity Easy
My self agreed 90 minute blog time is up sadly so I will finish on this last point about social spaces in virtual worlds, which again will be part of a few posts on other more prominent blogs. The number of cafes, cinemas, meeting rooms, lecture theatres, living rooms and so on that are completely empty, yet just outside the door are groups of avatars happily chatting away, staggers me. Developers, including myself sometimes, put great effort into lots of interior detail, to then find later no one is using it. We imagine scenes of avatars role playing, or at least imagining they are really in those places, yet there is something quite claustraphobic about these ‘realistically’ enclosed spaces in many cases (as an aside I tend to build broad stuctures with very high ceilings (usually domes) if I want a sense of ‘indoor’ness). Unless there is an organised event at the auditoriums, cinemas and cafes they are usually empty. Design social spaces outdoors or at the very least give them an outdoor feel. Avatars in Second Life can fly and to block this 3rd dimension of travel makes many feel uncomfortable and disabled. It was interesting to be party too the types of conversations, when collecting some images for this post and checking out the new sites - the difference between AOL and L Word. The L Word group below were discussing intimate aspects of lesbianism and societies labelling of single gender relationships while in the L Word stores couples were shopping as if in real ‘L’ life - most kept referring back to the L Word and what was going on in the show or how it is being manifest here. On the AOL site the conversations I participated in were very broad, all topics, no focus and none of them referred back to AOL, apart from the media types who were prowling. Perhaps part of that was due to the fact that like Big Brother the L Word already has a ’social’ expectation of its participants and back to point one above, if your brand is not already a conduit for a part of the global conversation, don’t expect it to become one in the metaverse.