September 27, 2007, 12:00 AM

Customer as avatar

(Page 2 of 3)

Others see a presence on Second Life as a way to reinforce a brand image. Geek Squad Island opened on Second Life in March with the help of The Electric Sheep Co., a designer of software and experiences for 3-D virtual worlds. “We couldn’t see any reason why we should not be there,” says Rodney Bryant, channel manager at Geek Squad, a technology repair services company. “Geek Squad is known as a leader in being able to troubleshoot technology.”

That’s what the avatar agents on Geek Squad in Second Life-as powered by human Geek Squad agents-actually do. Bryant says most of the questions posed by avatars visiting the shop are technical, ranging from requests for advice on problems the humans behind the avatars have with their computers in the real world, to questions about how to maneuver in the virtual world. Avatar agents on Geek Squad Island also can set up an appointment to have a human agent visit a real-world location to fix a computer.

Transferring to the real world

Geek Squad Island represents Geek Squad’s first foray into online community-building, Bryant says. “As we go though this experience, we are looking at expanding the way that we speak to consumers online. We will distribute whatever we learn in Second Life not only to the environment there but also to any other online space we work in,” he says. He adds that the company is measuring success in what it learns about how to deal with people in an online community, the number of real-life Geek Squad agents who sign up to be Second Life agents, and the volume of consumer engagements and employee interaction in the space.

Geek Squad parent company Best Buy Co. Inc. is monitoring the Geek Squad experiment closely, as well as watching other virtual worlds as a means of connecting with customers, says a spokeswoman, adding, “The learnings here will certainly have an impact on what the broader organization does in the virtual space.”

Beyond covering their bets, building brand awareness and experimenting with community, early brand players say the immersive nature of virtual worlds offers an opportunity for deepening customer engagement with the brand that can’t be duplicated on a 2-D e-commerce site. “Most retailers aren’t actually looking at virtual worlds as a way to drive sales right now. There are other key metrics and there are more qualitative ways of looking at marketing, too,” says Chris Sherman, executive director of Virtual Worlds Management, which produces the annual Virtual Worlds Conference & Expo. “Virtual worlds offer a much more personal way for consumers to form groups and social bonds around a brand. That’s harder to measure, but it’s invaluable.”

Crowne Plaza Hotels, a brand of the InterContinental Hotels Group, is testing that notion with its installation on Second Life, launched in June. In the real world, the hotel chain positions itself as a venue for business meetings. Its “Place to Meet” Island, constructed with the assistance of agency Spunlogic, is a free venue for virtual meetings. The virtual meeting rooms provide privacy, banning uninvited avatars from access, and the reservations system is staffed by an avatar powered by Crowne Plaza staff in much the same way reservations are staffed in the real world.

An immersive experience

So far, the meeting venue has been used by avatars representing professional associations that have spring up in Second Life-for instance, Business Communicators of Second Life-and by those representing student groups, according to Del Ross, vice president of distribution marketing for the Americas at InterContinental Hotels.

In a real world where alternatives to face-to-face meetings include webinars, conference calls and video conferencing, what’s the practical value of sending avatars to do the job in a virtual world? Ross says the question, or one like it, comes up every time a new communications medium emerges. In the case of Second Life, he says, “It may not sound perfectly intuitive, but there is something about seeing a virtual rendition of a person that changes the way you behave. It changes the level of engagement you might have,” he says. “In Second Life, it is more of an immersive experience that encourages a different level of behavior. It’s a little bit more human.”

McCann of 1-800-Flowers.com says his company is watching measures such as the number of visitors who have entered 1-800-Flowers.com in Second Life, built with agency This Second Marketing LLC, and the number who have interacted with staff avatars there. While McCann didn’t disclose those numbers, he says the company is pleased with them but for now the real utility of being in Second Life is the insights the company hopes to gain from interacting with customers in that environment.

“As a company we look for all possible ways to get into a stronger relationship with our customer base by getting into a dialogue with them. Second Life provides a great way to do that,” he says. He adds that the Second Life environment lends itself particularly to gathering feedback, as the social opportunity to interact with others there is one big reason visitors go to the virtual world. As a result, he says, “People are much more open to giving feedback, where in other forums you have to go out and solicit them for it.”

McCann sees the gathering of feedback from the Second Life resident community as a critical first step in pursuing other opportunities that may follow in the virtual environment. “We are learning about this community and trying to figure out how our brand fits into it, as opposed to pre-supposing and jamming an offline commerce model into that world,” he says. Based on its initial experience on Second Life and on the feedback from the community, 1-800-Flowers has already announced plans for an expanded in-world build-out.

Not for everyone

Visitors to 1-800-Flowers.com in Second Life now can link out from Second Life to the dedicated page on 1-800-Flowers.com’s regular web site, though there are no links from Second Life directly to products on 1-800-Flowers.com. McCann calls the notion of Second Life visitors one day creating bouquets in the virtual world and then linking to the e-commerce site to order the bouquets they’ve designed in real flowers “nirvana,” but says for now, the fulfillment requirements are just too daunting.

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