Ed Whiting – Discovering a Second Life

For those of you who may be lost already, firstly a quick definition of Second Life.

In the words of its creators, Linden Labs, Second Life is a “3-D virtual world entirely built and owned by its residents”. Essentially, it’s a social networking service where the users (or residents) interact via personal avatars to explore, meet other residents, socialise, participate in activities, trade items and buy services from each other using Second Life’s currency, The Linden Dollar.

Why should this be of interest? Well, Second Life is a fast-growing online community of more than 6.5 million consumers.

This has resulted in a number of companies establishing a presence on Second Life. And not just obscure online companies run by computer geeks. Coca-Cola, Dell, Starwood Hotels, STA Travel and, most recently, Comtec, have all now established a presence in Second Life.

So, straight to the $64,000 dollar question – “Will Second Life ever become a useful distribution tool for the travel industry?”

Well, at Comtec, to date, we’ve dabbled in Second Life by providing access to our consumer travel comparison portal, Travel.co.uk, via Second Life. Our entrance into Second Life has certainly provided us with some PR value. But, as to whether Second Life will deliver a significant volume of travel consumers in time? In honesty, who knows? But at Comtec that’s not a good enough reason to stop us trying it.

Exploring new technology distribution channels such as Second Life poses the same questions as when trying out any new form of distribution/marketing – ie. how much time and money is worth gambling on it taking off?

Well, it would certainly take a brave, or foolish, person to burn a large whole in their marketing budget on a distribution channel that is potentially promising, but essentially unproven.

This is the case with Second Life. To date, we’ve spent very little to establish our Travel.co.uk presence and we’re just going to suck it and see.

With minimal effort and spend, we’re poised to build upon, or scale down, our first-mover presence according to how things go over the next few months. That’s our approach. However, it’s clear there are other companies that, judging by the scale of their presence in Second Life, must have invested at least £50,000 just to get started…we’ll call them brave! 

With the digital world still rapidly evolving and new social networking services popping up every week, who knows which, if any, will become a valuable distribution channel for your business to work with in the future. Rather than analyse them, it may be better to dabble, measure results and invest in the ones that work.

Graham Donoghue has set up Thomson Labs. This conjures up a picture of people in white jackets and safely goggles, but in reality I expect it’s part of many of the Thomson.co.uk team’s roles – trying and testing out the latest technology. Some of which will look like they work, and will be adopted into the mainstream business, with the majority getting discarded.

To decide how to approach these new channels you need to decide if you want to be an ‘explorer’ or a ‘follower’. If you want to be a cutting-edge explorer, then be prepared to try all of these channels out. You may get lucky. But, be smart and don’t spend a huge amount of money on pilots and work out the ones that do and don’t work for you as a business. If you want to be a follower then keep a close eye on how the explorers get on. If they uncover a gem, you may have a little catching up to do.

So, are you an explorer or a follower? If you’re a follower, watch this space. If you’re an explorer I’d recommend you get yourself a Second Life and see for yourself what the fuss is all about.

Ed Whiting is e-commece director at Comtec (Europe)

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