Tell me a story: marketing Second Life

Grace McDunnough pointed me (via Twitter) at an interesting little tidbit of thought by Jonathan Baskin about the possible end of “silly social media”.

Before anyone gets too excited, it’s not a piece proposing the end of thing like Facebook; rather it is an examination of various efforts to use social media as a tool for marketing – and why, like-as-not, they fail.

Elsewhere, Tateru Nino offers up a post that starts to examine the new user experience. Leaving aside the fact she’s now gazumped me on two topics I’ve been wanting to blog about; Tateru makes a very valid argument that indirectly ties into the article Grace pointed me to. That observation is this:

“Linden Lab is rubbish at telling its story.”

Rather than constructing any form of consistent marketing strategy, LL seems to jump from idea to idea, randomly seeking something that will somehow, magically work and bring in new users. Along the way, they give the impression they don’t understand either their own product or those that use it.

The SL Facebook page is symptomatic of this – and a clear example of Baskin’s critique on blindly trying to leverage social media spaces as advertising mediums. Slapping supposedly feel-good items on a Facebook page and getting people to “like” it isn’t going to generate a noticeable upswing of new users entering SL; nor is boasting the “like” count – not when it largely comprises people already using SL. This is not to say I think having a presence on Facebook is “wrong” or not worthwhile. Rather, I find using Facebook in this way is akin to preaching to the converted rather than marketing to potential new users.

“A tale in everything” – William Wordsworth

In Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth I suggested there needs to be a renewal of collaboration between Lab and user community; that such collaboration could be used in diverse ways – including PR and marketing. This can be done through the use of a technique called narrative marketing – and it can be used to significantly improve the manner in which LL could leverage a presence on Facebook (and elsewhere).

Simply put, narrative marketing is using stories to promote and market a product – stories drawn from customer experiences, from situations, which can be drawn together into a narrative that engages the audience and draws them into the product; they reach into the heart of human interest and experience. Narrative marketing recognises that marketing is a two-way street, and that engagement with the consumer can be more effective than simply preaching to them or bombarding them with images and text or sending them hither and thither. It resonates with the audience because stories:

  • Are more memorable, evocative and interesting: they engage the audience
  • Generate identification and empathy
  • Are perceived as more unique and personal, thus generating greater acceptance and a sense of believability
  • Are more viral – we all tell and repeat stories.

The power of narrative marketing is that it is open to developing themes and ideas that can be easily repeated across a marketing strategy incorporating diverse mediums, almost like stringing a necklace. When placed within a common context, many different stories can be gathered and then strung together in any order, like the beads on a necklace, to create a range of experiences that attract several audiences while maintaining the same underpinning message.

The narrative approach can be linked directly with traditional means of brand development (strategy, identification and management), drawing them together into a narrative that focuses on communications and activities. It allows a company to say, “This is me”, with strategy, values and positioning defined by the narrative and channelled as stories that trigger memories, associations, experiences and expectations in the potential customer / user that cause them to say, “I like you. Tell me / show me more!”

“Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today” – Robert McAfee Brown

Second Life is a story-rich environment which can be woven into a broad tapestry of narrative and ideas that can reach many audiences, simultaneously.  Narrative marketing provides the means by which tools like Facebook might be used more effectively and potentially generate the kind of response Linden Lab is seeking far more effectively than a count of “likes”.

Consider what is more effective:

  • A page full of likes and a list of past events with a vague link to an even vaguer sign-up webpage (the current situation), or
  • A series of stories, drawn from the rich diversity of the SL user community, that illustrate how Second Life is being actively used by role players, gamers, students, teachers, companies, entertainers, etc., the narrative naturally drawing the reader into a strong linking page on the SL website that further encourages them to sign-up and experience things for themselves.

Obviously, quantifying the narrative isn’t easy; let’s be clear on that. It requires a whole new approach to both the platform and the wider market. In this regard, Dusan Writer hit the nail squarely on the head when he stated at the top of his recent interview with Tom Boellstorff:

“During my recent interview with Rod Humble, the new CEO of Linden Lab, I had one major piece of advice: reach out to Tom and spend some time with him (and while you’re at it, hire an ethnographer to work at the Lab!).”

Hire an ethnographer to work at the Lab! Perhaps one of the most insightful suggestions ever given to the management at Battery Street. Hire a “corporate anthropologist” who can plumb the depths of diverse SL communities and activities, drawing out genuine stories which can be drawn into a narrative theme to market Second Life and persuade people to discard any preconceived notions of what SL might be about and come and see what it is about.

Part of the power of Second Life lies in its ability to be “anything you want it to be”; but unless this is quantified in some way, captured in a manner that people outside of Second Life can identify with, then it’s going to remain a nebulous concept. Rather than generating curiosity, it tends to result in a feeling of, “Yeah, so?” Quantify the fact people can be “anything they want to be” in terms of stories from SL itself, and you transform “Yeah, so?” into “Yeah! I want some of that!”

This isn’t actually rocket science; the fact is most people engaged in SL have been drawn into it through stories from others: friends and colleagues who have been a part of SL, or glossy pieces of journalism that have glamorised SL as the place to be. Stories, personal tales of what excites and engages, resonates far more strongly than a wall of miscellaneous photos or out-of-context videos; so why not use them?

“The answer is always in the entire story, not a piece of it” – Jim Harrison

Right now, the process of trying to attract new users, bring them to the SL website and get them to sign up is a series of mismatched steps that can lead to frustration long before the user sets foot in-world. Worse, some of the steps are either misleading in their presentation or – boring.

Tateru Nino, in her article, observes:

“Crafting an effective new-user experience for Second Life starts long before the user logs in for the first time. The Second Life viewer user-interface is not the most important part of a new user’s story.”

Simply put, there is no flow between, say, the Second Life Facebook page and the Second Life website sign-up process. There are no themes or threads that naturally lead from one to the other. The SL sign-up process is devoid of any charm: What is Second Life is at best meaningless as it doesn’t actually fulfil its title. Of the two videos supplied, one is misleading – much of what is shown doesn’t happen in SL, period; while the other (the Welcome Island walk-through) is boring; combined. Neither tells a desirable story; neither encourages someone to click on JOIN NOW.

Developing a narrative flow that runs seamlessly from Facebook to a restructured “What is” page that clearly and succinctly informs and which in turn integrates with the sign-up process could achieve so much more. The stories are the means by which people become intrigued by the potential of SL has to offer; leading people to want to know more, allowing them to be further hooked into wanting to sign-up, enticed by what they learn in What is Second Life. Everything becomes integrated, focused on the single purpose of translating interest into in-world footfalls.

“My major allegiance has been to storytelling, not to history” – Russell Banks

Narrative techniques can be utilised in other areas as well. Gathering stories from both staff and customers can give a clearer understanding of any disconnect in specific customer-facing functions in a company, such as customer services.  The use of stories from customers and staff alike removes the inevitable bias and preconceptions inherent in more traditional tools such as surveys, which tend to suffer from interpretations that find what is being looked for, rather than identifying where the issues lay.

The development of narrative requires engagement between an organisation and its users. As such it can clarify where and why communications are going wrong. Want to know why Second Life users are negatively concerned about how Linden Lab goes about implementing changes to the platform? Listen to their stories, and use those stories to build a process of engagement to ensure future changes are properly communicated alongside a means be which feedback can be given and demonstrate it is being heard and addressed. Help them through future implementation dips by letting them illustrate in their own words why it happened before.

Randal Ringer headlines 2011 as the start of the decade of narrative marketing. Second Life is ideally suited for a narrative marketing campaign that encompasses Linden Lab and the positive experiences that have grown out of direct user participation in the platform. Narrative marketing can naturally lead to better and more responsive engagement and collaboration with the user base as a whole; beyond this, it can provide pointers to how Linden Lab itself can better structure itself to deliver the services and support that the users can understand and appreciate.

Further Reading