The initial rush of first-mover business activity into Second Life largely involved companies like Adidas and Toyota establishing islands and offering virtual events in an effort to capture the fancy of consumers -- especially in the desirable under-40 demographic. Largely a branding play, presence in Second Life was also seen as a relatively inexpensive way to gather customer feedback.
But then companies -- notably IBM and Sun -- began touting benefits that extended beyond the consumer and into corporate America. While we could certainly see some of the practical applications, from global networking to training to recruiting talented techies, it also seemed just a little too gimmicky.
Despite folks like the director of IBM's Center for Advanced Learning, whose Second Life avatar appears clad in a kilt and some weird-looking headgear in this Fast Company article, we questioned whether most folks would feel comfortable flying their freak flag in a business environment.
There also appeared to be a bit of a learning curve, based on this E-Commerce Times account of an IBM event in Second Life during which the author reported some difficulty in figuring out how to get his avatar to take a seat. Some other negatives -- from a reportedly glitchy infrastructure to security concerns to lots of folks trying to accomplish nothing more than hooking up -- also struck us as decidedly non-business friendly.
We weren't the only ones, apparently. The VP of marketing for Unisfair, a company that presents virtual trade fairs and other events, told us in a recent IT Business Edge interview that:
Business professionals don't want to have to learn a bunch of new functions and commands. They don't really want avatars, they don't want to dress up and have green hats.
His company claims to offer a far more intuitive experience, with most communication taking place via e-mail, IM and chat -- channels that business types already use. No worries about having your avatar speak for you. For companies that sell to other companies, Unisfair's product also offers the ability to closely track user activities and interests -- and thus craft more targeted promotions.
Not surprisingly, the VP predicts that virtual environments like those created by his company will become as popular as Webcasts are today. Virtual environments will earn an edge over Webcasts because of their inherent interactivity, he says.
"(Webcasts) are like going to a college lecture, with a single lecturer and a bunch of people attending. Within our environment, we have an exhibition area where you can interact with booth reps, we have a networking lounge where attendees and sponsors can have discussion groups and forums, we have a resource center where you can download whitepapers and collateral, and a conference hall where the keynotes and/or multiple session tracks occur. In any of these sections, you can chat, IM, e-mail and now we are incorporating VoIP."