Business in Virtual Worlds, Collaboration, Deep Thoughts, Second Life, Virtual World Platforms

Selling Virtual Worlds for Business: Change and the Future of the Enterprise

In the past 12 months there has been a noticeable shift for those who are using and selling virtual worlds. We are moving past the “why the heck should I care” phase into the “what specifically can I use it for” discussion, something which I wrote about following the 3DTLC conference in February. At the time, I called this the shift from “why” to “what”, and the hot button topics weren’t technology or barriers, but rather use cases and examples.

The theme of the 3DTLC being held in September will focus on “”Crossing the Chasm” or “Getting to Main Street” according to conference chair Tony O’Driscoll.

(Hopefully Tony will contain himself from referencing the Gartner Hype Cycle, which doesn’t have any particular value that I can tell, other than for people who are hoping against hope that their long struggle to evangelize new technologies won’t be futile, and to get Gartner’s name out there yet again. See? I just gave them another ad hit).

From another angle, Linden Lab is launching a new portal for business, and will be officially launching its firewall solution (code name Nebraska) this Fall. Linden Lab has clearly been listening to the market: they have crafted a good set of responses that address the “Whys” as well as the “Whats” of virtual worlds for enterprise. For those who are considering taking the virtual plunge, they offer a good, solid set of value propositions, mostly around online meetings (and cost savings) and a few words about business value (referencing the qualitative ThinkBalm report) and collaboration.

So, we’re shifting from the Innovator to Early Adopter phase, the thinking goes, and 3DTLC and the new Second Life enterprise portal are evidence of this shift into a “OK, I sort of get it, but make it easy for me, show me specifically what to do, and let’s get going” mind set.

The Ecology of Change
Now, I suppose I come from a slightly different perspective. My business is focused on moving needles. Our job is to look for tools and technologies that can facilitate some kind of change, or to work with clients who have a specific change they want to see happen. It might be increasing the number of people who are screened for breast cancer, or improving the effectiveness of a sales force, or raising awareness for a charity. But the point is, the need for or ability to change precedes the selection of tools, media, and creative approach.

Where this leaves us, just as it leaves many of our clients, or maybe even more broadly culture itself, is in a place where we’re trying to figure out how all the new ways to collaborate, connect, share, communicate, learn and tell stories are influencing the paths by which change can be facilitated.

There are so many interlinked issues: trust, transparency, integrity; social media and on-line videos; collaborative knowledge systems and blogs; a shift in sources of value; the over-turning of models of authority, or at least who you trust to give a good recommendation; increased competition for attention, or just increased competition; and less time in the day to sort it out, when your staff might work across a dozen time zones or more.

So we plug away and we take some clients along for the ride. In our work in the health field, we might be mashing up Twitter with a Web site to create a sort of mobile medical education program; or we’ll look at notated video as a way to share patient experiences; or we may be building communities where patients are given a venue for informing physicians, rather than the other way around.

So there’s broader challenge: in a world where there are always new tools to ‘push the needle’, when communities are increasingly dispersed (yet connected), and when enterprise is struggling to both deal with the “costs of entry” (cost containment, say) and redefine their value propositions, where do virtual worlds fit in?

Virtual Worlds as the Site of Transformative Insight
When I talk about virtual worlds, I usually tell people that I might have landed somewhere else.

I could have started blogging FIRST and maybe virtual worlds would have been in the periphery of that experience. Or I might have become fascinated with the Nintendo Wii and I’d be working on Exergaming or something. Or maybe I would have actually enjoyed Facebook instead of finding it profoundly annoying, and I’d be building widgets.

But I stumbled into virtual worlds instead, and I’m lucky I did. And maybe I drank the Kool Aid, but I really believe that there are features to virtual world environments which are a lens through which to see, understand and respond to the ways in which technology is changing culture and business that you won’t pick up solely on Facebook, or Twitter, or Wikipedia.

And they include things which I’m deeply passionate about and which are, perhaps, more deeply embedded or more easily seen in virtual worlds than elsewhere: how we craft identity online, how privacy can be protected (or destroyed), how governance and policy are important underpinnings to on-line communities, how individual expression is shaping new collaborative culture, and how morality is shifting to one that is more tribal, communal and, perhaps, less individualistic.

Those are messy and obscure philosophical things, maybe - at least from the perspective of trying to sell a widget, or providing support to a patient with lymphoma. But they’re also the macro trends that are shaping these new relationships between people, businesses, and the organizations who control and shape these newer technologies.

And these issues don’t exist in the silo of technology. You may never HAVE a Web site, or work in a virtual world, or care about the use of games in training. But these macro trends will have a deep and significant impact on how people think about themselves, each other, the broader culture, and their expectations of business, government, and other organizations.

Virtual Worlds and Agendas for Change
So at the broadest level, virtual worlds are a site from which we can explore and understand macro-trends in consumerism, identity, privacy, the rise of the tribe, collaboration, the disappearance of ‘geography’, and the governance and support of on-line communities.

There are other “sites” from which to craft a change agenda, and if I was IDEO or Frog or Nike I’d probably be exploring all of them, within the context of a broader plan to craft an enterprise-level value proposition and strategy.

I’d probably be exploring social media through something like Twitter, or trying to understand the opportunities and barriers of open source and its implications for product development, or dipping my toe in game development as an engine for training.

But if I had only one thing to focus on for a year, I would use virtual worlds as the platform because of their ability to integrate a little of ALL of these things, because virtual worlds include collaborative, open source coding, social media, games, community-building, and features of all these other trends that are shaking up industries.

Linden Lab talks about presence and persistence, and that goes a long way to understanding WHY virtual environments succeed in being both social venues and information spaces that can be explored alone; both about community and individual expression; both about proprietary technology and collaborative development; both about “real time” data flows and static archetypes.

Investing in virtual worlds, in other words, can give insight into the multitude of issues facing brands and enterprise today, and the slice of insight that you get will be based on what you put into it, what your goals are, and how you execute.

But My Boss Says….
Now, the above is fine, but it doesn’t mean I’m going to walk into every client and go off on a tangent about virtual identity. I can go on tangents, there’s no question, but I’ve been doing this long enough that I know that hearing myself talk is hardly a deal closer.

What’s important about the framework isn’t that it is necessarily stated explicitly, but rather that I have a governing principle to why this stuff is important and why people need to get on board. Now, I’ll save a little bit of thunder here and share some of the more specific ‘pitches’ for my presentations at SLCC and 3DTLC and future posts. But the pitch itself is fairly simple:

- Find an ‘early win’ metric that makes sense to the client’s specific business case. The metric might be reduced costs for travel, increased learning retention for training, or enhanced team communication.

- Second, remember that most clients don’t imagine themselves at the end of their careers looking back at all the money they saved on conferences. So the ‘early win’ is the “yeah my boss will buy into that” statement, and the rest of it is the “yeah, this will make me look cool” stuff, and, if you’re lucky and if you’re talking to someone high enough in the organization, you can get to the “yes, this could shift our company in the direction of some true and lasting change”.

The rest is dotting the t’s and convincing the accounting and IT people to sign off (not always an easy task, but hey, it’s what we DO right? Head off and read Guy Kawasaki’s top-ten list for selling to CFOs and take it from there).

So, I’m not trying to ignore the selling process itself - whether you’re trying to do so internally, to a potential customer, or maybe just yourself. What’s important is the context from which you do so: because I believe that understanding virtual worlds as the venue for managing change, (which means managing value creation, and innovation, and the future of the enterprise), is a far more profitable place from which to start than thinking that you’re selling an application, or a substitute for WebEx, or, even, a technology.

Because from this mind-set, it’s easier to think about the comments, discussions and resistance that comes up - or, I find it easier, anyways, because I avoid getting myself trapped in a technology comparison or other dead ends (it’s interesting, for example, that Rezzable seems to think Linden Lab should be giving some kind of product comparison with OpenSim and Forterra, which either tells you something about their attitude towards Linden Lab or is a rate-card approach to understanding how marketing and sales works).

It’s Not Mass Market
No, it’s not. Neither, for that matter, is Twitter (right now, though, the press you get about being ON Twitter might be far more mass market than Twitter itself, which is a lot like how brands saw Second Life a few years back).

Right now, virtual worlds are primed for organizations to understand cultural or organizational-level change. If you’re trying to reach a million people, advertise on TV or radio or Facebook. But if you’re trying to understand how the creation and sale of products themselves are changing, or want to know what the “innovators” are up to, then jump into virtual worlds and start documenting what you learn, because those lessons will have applicability when you start sorting out your next media plan for a new product.

Virtual worlds are not part of a media mix, they’re part of ideation, stakeholder outreach, and trend-spotting. They’re not part of reaching mass markets, they’re about understanding where the markets will be tomorrow.

They’re Not Browser Based
Look, we’ll deal with your IT people later - yeah, they can be a stubborn bunch, but we can handle them, get them involved, and give them some cool toys to play with. And yes, most virtual worlds include a ‘client’. And that’s the beauty: in a world of ephemeral media, and micro-blogs, and the ability to rapidly surf the Web, virtual worlds stand out because they stand alone: there’s an investment that needs to be made to participate, there’s a download, they stand separate, and this investment curve by your users is what makes them more “sticky” than a Web forum, say.

Virtual worlds extract a commitment from the end user: a commitment to download, to learn, and to acclimate themselves to a new environment. This makes the experience richer. It also places a far greater onus on making it worthwhile once they DO arrive.

Think of it like embedded quality assurance: with a Web site you can launch something that’s, well, crap and you can probably get a hit or two from your target users. With a virtual world, they won’t even log on if they don’t have a good reason to do so: this places a burden on creating meaningful experiences, which means a greater probability of success.

If you’re going to succeed in advancing an innovation agenda, this is going to take some care, some thought, some investment, some training - if you think you can move the needle of your organization by launching a Facebook group then go for it, but the investment you put in is usually reflective of what will come out.

There’s all that, um, sex and stuff
First, get over it. You did on the Web. So get over it again. But second, all that sex and stuff is what you should be looking for. It’s a sign that a technology is sufficiently “hot” that it gets people to, well, express themselves in all kinds of ways.

I’d be avoiding Twitter entirely, but there’s enough sex spam on it to tell me that it’s the real deal. And did you really think that “pokes” on Facebook are just friendly “hellos?”

These forms of expression, using newer technologies, probably means that there’s something TRULY new going on - because if it doesn’t attract its share of passion, then it’s probably just an application. (Um, I was going to say appliance, but that has some connotations as well).

In any case, whatever you heard is probably over-blown, and what we really care about is protecting your brand integrity, and there are lots of ways to make sure that your brand is protected and isn’t thrown up like it might be if you ran an ad which was randomly positioned beside some tortured cat video on youTube.

Why is this better than WebEx Again?
Oh yeah, I got your attention by talking about a new way to hold a sales meeting and how much money you’d save on travel.

So let’s start with that. First, it has all of the features of WebEx: you can share desktops (at least in Immersive Workspaces(TM) which we represent); you can book meetings through shared calendars and manage invitations from a Web site; you can upload presentations and videos. All that good stuff.

With Immersive Workspaces(TM) one of the key drivers is that you “drive” a lot of the content from a Web-based dashboard. This cross-integration between a 3D environment and a Web site is intuitive, efficient, and allows full integration with corporate systems.

But beyond being “like” WebEx, it provides three things that the other doesn’t:

- A sense of “being there”, or presence, which you don’t get from being a name on a participant list at the side of the screen
- The ability to support both synchronous and asynchronous engagement
- It’s fully expandable. Add a Twitter tree. Have someone phone in if they can’t log in. Create a team dashboard showing sales targets and accomplishments. Use a 3D mind map. Imagine it. Build it.

And this last point is the most important: because getting your team together for a meeting in WebEx might be a great way to review the latest product specs. But holding a meeting in a virtual environment a) sets the stage for future content and activities that breaks down other barriers that a PowerPoint presentation will NEVER do; and b) starts to change the mind set of your internal team, or the relationships you have with partners, or the outreach you have with customers, because it communicates a willingness to learn, explore, have fun, share, collaborate and innovate.

The Mountains We Shall Climb

There’s a lot of work ahead.

Virtual worlds are still in their relative infancy. We’ll be sorting out HTML-on-a-prim soon enough; then we’ll be embedding 3D in the browser and figuring out how to revamp our Web site to make information more compelling and intuitive; and soon enough we’ll be embedding game mechanics not just in training but in how we work.

There are stumbling blocks in virtual worlds: yes, they ARE a little hard to get used to, and folks are struggling to come up with new metaphors and innovations in interface design (we’re waiting, Linden Lab!). No, they are NOT yet suitable for robust prototyping of product designs, you need to head to the CAD world for that, although they make decent sketch books.

But virtual worlds, for me at least, provide a “grounding”. They provide a sense of place, which is at once persistent and always there, and dynamic because of how they can pull in content from external databases or information streams, because of how easily they can be modified. They are a tool for community connection and, in fact, integrate well with many of the social media tools we use to keep in touch, but also give those same communities a home, a place where they can carve out some space away from the pokes and tweets and forum posts and just spend some time together.

That experiment you do today when you hold a virtual sales meeting, or the one you do tomorrow when you get your team to brainstorm the “product of the future” in partnership with a virtual artist, or the efforts you make a year from now to map out your strategic plan in an information-rich and interactive environment (communicating far more powerfully than a company e-mail or Intranet post) - these experiments you do are windows on the future of your enterprise, the one where value is created because innovation has been bred in these strange new places, aligned with strategic goals, and integrated with the other tools and tricks that you add as you learn how to approach and ultimately thrive in this terrifying, changing, brilliant new world.


speak up

Add your comment below, or trackback from your own site.

Subscribe to these comments.

*Required Fields

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.