Merchandise and the Lab

Marketing Second Life is something we all have an opinion about, and as such, Linden Lab has often taken a far amount of flak from users on the subject. I’m as guilty as anyone in this; in the past I’ve been particularly verbose on the subject through posts in this blog such as Business, Collaboration and Creative Growth, Tell me a story: marketing Second Life, and Advertising SL: the machinima effect (the latter of which has been somewhat overtaken by the Lab recognising the power of Draxtor Despres’ The Drax Files; World Makers series.

However, there is another potential marketing strategy the Lab is missing, something which was recently brought home by by a segment of The Drax Files Radio Hour.

During a visit to the Lab’s HQ for the show, Drax had a chat with Shaman and Kona Linden, both of whom were holding items of merchandise available to Lab staff – a Rubik’s cube featuring the Second Life logo on one face, and a FIC (Fêted Inner Circle) mug. Lab personnel have also seen out and about wearing a certain t-shirt proclaiming their leading role in provisioning virtual worlds.

Shaman Linden holds a Rubik’s cube with the Second Life logo and Kona Linden, with an arm around Caleb Linden,  holds a FIC mug (image: Draxtor Despres)

Other items were mentioned as being available, leaving Drax to wonder why the Lab doesn’t market these goods to users; and he has a point. True, there are issues of the Lab’s international user base and the cost of postage – but these are things that can be factored-in, and if the Lab doesn’t necessarily want to handle the additional weight of merchandise orders, etc., itself, there are companies who will do it for them for a small commission on sales.

Certainly, the appearance of the merchandise has sparked discussions in a number of areas since the show. Ciaran Laval, for example started a thread over on SLU (although admittedly, it got somewhat sidetracked into a discussion of the meaning behind a particular term, which eventually involved Kevin Bacon – who said the six degrees of separation was dead?); others elsewhere have expressed an interest in having at least some of the merchandise, and other items that have been seen in the past.

The Lab's current t-shirt (l), and two styles of jacket / track suit top worn in the past by Philip Rosedale - all have been the subject of "want" attention from SL users

The Lab’s current t-shirt (l), and two styles of jacket / track suit top worn in the past by Philip Rosedale – all have been the subject of “want” attention from SL users

Take the jackets that were variously sported by former CEO (and co-founder of the Lab) Philip Rosedale; these were oft been admired and a subject of attention at the likes of the old SLCC events; so why not make them available?

And how about an updated version of the 10th anniversary varsity-style jacket the Lab made available in-world in 2013? Replace the 10th anniversary logo with the SL logo, and it might well be something users would buy if offered in the physical world. I know I wouldn’t object to having the opportunity to buy one, although admittedly, that might be something a tad too expensive to produce and sell…

If I understand things correctly, there’s even a JIRA-related t-shirt, something which would likely prove popular within the coding community;

The in-world 10th anniversary varsity-style jacket: an updated version might have potential in the physical world

The in-world 10th anniversary varsity-style jacket: an updated version might have potential in the physical world

Some items made available in the past, such as a pendant, and Ciaran makes mention of  Jack Linden once offering those at his office hours meetings a “bag of swag” (although where this was physical world items or not is unclear to me – I didn’t attend Jack’s meetings – but Ciaran seems to lean towards this being the case). Were they to appear again, they might prove popular enough to make it worthwhile.

The advantage to the Lab in making these items available for users is not just a potential (albeit modest) revenue stream through the sale of the goods – it’s the broader reach of marketing and promotion they offer. Of course, some might thumb their nose on seeing someone else wearing a Second Life jacket, but that’s no reason not to offer them; and a FIC mug in the office is a way to start conversations (and depending on the nature of the office politics, might end up being something everyone wants, regardless of whether they are SL users or not! 🙂 ).

So how about it Ebbe? Why not give thought to making merchandise available to your users? Even if you only dip a toe or two into the water to see how things go, it might prove worth your while.

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25 thoughts on “Merchandise and the Lab

  1. Shug Maitland

    Reblogged this on Rambling with Shug and commented:
    This is something I have advocated for YEARS.
    Hopefully LL is finally listening.
    Inara’s point, near the end, is especially important. We may buy SL merchandise for personal gratification but in the end it will end up starting conversations in RL — how can that do anything but benefit SL/LL?

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  2. primperfect

    Fantasy Faire are about to launch a calendar that can be bought in the real world and Second Life (profits going to RFL). It will be really interesting to see how well this works – the images that were captured at Fantasy Faire which will be appearing in the calendar will, I think, have an appeal beyond Second Life users.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      I’m looking forward to seeing the calendar; I remember covering the competition back in May. And you’re right – there is potential there for appeal well beyond SL.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Yup. Not discounting what you say – I wasn’t at the meeting, after all – but the niggly part of me still asks, “Was he talking physical swag or virtual swag?” t-shirts can be worn by estate owners in-world as much as anywhere else, after all 🙂 . More to the point – was this stuff that was grabbed by others, or simply an idea thrown out to the meeting as something which might be done? Enquiring minds, enquiring minds!

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      1. Ciaran Laval

        If I could find the actual transcript I’d have more background, but I’m pretty sure he was talking about real items, not virtual ones. However this was over six years ago!

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Now THERE’S a marketing opportunity – framed photo of a server rack complete with a gilt sign saying, “XX was here” and the date (where XX is the avatar’s name), pointing to the actual box on which someone’s region was running at the time the photo was taken! 😀 .

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      1. lokieliot

        It could be like those ‘adopt a penguin’ things, where the Lab send you updates on how the server is doing and what it’s been up to and how my monthly tier goes into maintaining the server and its friends habitat.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      That’s the pendant I was referring to in the post – thanks for the image, Caliburn (have fixed the link issue as well 🙂 ).

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  3. Becky

    Drax and I have discussed marketing SL in the past, and I remember this and other similar ideas coming up. If I was advising the Lab, I would advise them NOT to invest in premiums as a significant marketing investment. There are four reasons:

    1. Premiums (which is the broader category for goods supplied by a company with their marketing messages on them) are not a relatively good marketing investment full stop. Studies by The Nielsen Company on global marketing return on investment have shown it to generate $1.19 for every $1 spent, which is only marginally better than average, but falls short when compared to the ROI of (in ascending order) print magazines, co-op programs, long-term PR, long-term TV, and on-line advertising. So, I’d rather the Lab put more investment on on-line advertising and targeted PR before going elsewhere, primarily because Second Life is such a niche product and isn’t ready for TV.

    2. Premiums are about communicating communities of association. They act as signifiers of the tribes *we want others to recognise* we belong to (and that “want to see others to recognise” is the operative phrase in that statement. I might have a coffee cup featuring nothing but Princess Leia’s famous hair buns in Episode IV, which that tells the world that I am a Star Wars fan – because I want to be associated with what Star Wars represents. I might also wear a Captain Picard t-shirt to indicate which Star Trek *team* I’m on, because everyone knows that TNG was the best series, of course. They might act as conversation starters, which is not why I have these goods, but I wouldn’t mind a conversation coming up surrounding it. Second Life is different. Most people that use Second Life don’t talk about Second Life to friends and associates – even when probed. In general, Second Life users don’t want to be associated with it in their real life spheres of interaction. Virtual reality as a category is hardly even discussed among people that work in *highly* technically-oriented communities, in which one might consider it to be at least an objective area of interest. The Lab has a word of mouth problem because their product just isn’t seen as very cool.

    3. Premiums are best aimed at maintaining loyalty among heavy-users, and do very little to attract new users unfamiliar with the product. Second Life does not have a long-term loyalty problem, it has a new-user acquisition problem. As a product, I’ve been loyal to Second Life (albeit with a few short breaks) since 2007. I honestly can’t say that about many other brands. Second Life is by nature addictive because the experiences we have in Second Life are so highly-rewarding. This is even true for famously brand-disloyal GenXers (more on this later). We don’t need a logo-festooned jacket to remind us to log in to Second Life instead of its alternative. For one, there are very few viable alternatives. Second, we invest a great deal into Second Life which creates a switching cost. Third, it’s as accessible as nearly everything else digital. Fourth, we don’t even have to be logged in to engage in the community by using the social media surrounding it.

    4. Premiums are generational, and premiums aren’t viewed the same among generational differences. I have no idea what the age demographic for Second Life is but I can hazard an educated guess. My assumption (based on nothing but experience and intuition) is that Second Life would most popular among GenXers born between 1965 and 1979, with some bleeding into late Baby Boomers (1946-1964) and more penetration into Millennials (1980-2000). GenXers were the first generation to actively wear corporate logos on their clothes, which is why I can understand that this idea might appeal to both Linden Lab staffers, Drax, and many of the readers of your blog. We think back to all the logos we’ve worn emblazoned on our back pockets, buttons, chests, shoulders and backs and think that nothing could be more natural. While you still see this today, GenXers and nearly everyone else has become considerably more aware of how marketing works, and refuse to be a walking advertisement for all but the most personally-defining brands. One might cite a trend that seems to fly in the face of that argument, in that for years, the logos on our clothing have become larger and larger. This trend, however, is adopted in mainly three cases: a) the brand is aspirational (which Second Life is not), the adopters of lower economic social classes (which I’d hazard to guess Second Life users are not), and the adopters of the brand are from countries aspiring to Western ideals (which may be a market for Second Life, but wouldn’t constitute the heavy user base for which premiums actually work for.

    So, no. As much as I’d like to have a t-shirt with Drax’s handsome mugshot on it (/me winks at Bernhard if he’s reading), I’d advise the Lab to spend its money elsewhere.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      Thanks for the feedback, and points made.

      In terms of point 1. True – although the counter argument is that within niche environments, the ROI can be more significant.

      “In general, Second Life users don’t want to be associated with it in their real life spheres of interaction.” I’m not sure that is entirely true; many SL users are willing to allow overlap – perhaps not a majority, but enough to be substantial.

      However, whether or not we’re willing to talk to others about our interest in SL or not is actually beside the point. Yes, I do make the point of the potential towards the end of the article (and do so somewhat tongue-in-cheek in the case of FIC mugs), but it is entirely secondary to the main point of the piece.

      As you point-out, we are deeply invested in Second Life. We’re invested enough to push back against media articles that we perceive as presenting an unfair view of the platform; we’re invested enough to keep coming back time and again despite (real or imagined) outrages at the Lab “doing it wrong”. We retain – in the broadest possible sense of the word – a feeling of community and belonging. As such, and even if the items never get seen beyond our fridge door, our desk at home (or even sits, unremarked upon, on our desk at work), there is a an “internal” marketplace for Lab-related merchandise.

      What’s more, one could argue that the case for a modest range of merchandise has already been made. The pendant to which I referred (and my thanks to Caliburn for the image reference!), saw interest exceed availability, and being limited-edition, the offer was never repeated to satisfy the interest shown.

      Further, and my own wilder aspirations for merchandise aside, making a modest group of items available to users needn’t be a huge effort. A lot of the hard work has already been done: the Lab has mugs, magnets and (at least the design for) pendants already available; t-shirts don’t take a huge amount of effort and oversight to produce. So they’re already pretty much in a position to at least test the waters once more, and with controlled cost of execution. So why shouldn’t the Lab test the waters once more. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

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      1. Becky

        Yes certainly, ROI can be more significant depending on numerous conditions, the numbers I cite are averages, so by definition one’s results can be higher or lower than reported.

        In regards to your suggestion that a “substantial” amount of users want to overlap analog and digital lives: How much is substantial? And substantial for what?

        We can only guess of course, but there is a mountain of practical evidence suggests that a very, very, very insignificant proportion of residents volunteer to do so. The vast majority of users conceal all and any identifying information in their profiles, which would be the easiest place to look for evidence of overlap. This includes one’s image, one’s location, one’s occupation, where one works, and one’s name. Many don’t even share the fact they use Second Life with their most dear, let alone friends, associates or (gasp!) strangers. And if that is not the case, where is the evidence to suggest that that this substantial inclination exists?

        The point I’m making about wishing to talk to others is important, because by wearing or using branded merchandise outside of my private home, we are effectively communicating our association with a product and inviting remarks or questions. It is likely that this association would generate negative assumptions among those only marginally acquainted with the breadth that SL has to offer (assumptions which would likely remain unspoken), and genuine questions from those that are familiar and positive, which may in fact lead to some uncomfortable evasive maneouvers.

        I don’t argue with the idea that there is a minority of people that might purchase such items (and by minority I would expect a maximum of 1-2% of residents), but I would be very surprised if more than that small number of “residents would go nuts” buying them by the dozens as Drax suggests in his interview. We have to always remember when listening through Drax’s filter – he is not a typical Second Life user, just like how people that choose to be featured in the DraxFiles or the Radio Hour are not typical Second Life users.

        It’s true that these things don’t take a huge amount of effort and oversight to produce, it might (and should) be outsourced even, and at a cost that wouldn’t be significant at all. Every effective marketing budget has an element of experimentation (some might argue as high as 15%) which we might call “mad money”. These are resources that one might forgive a zero or even a net loss return, because you are right, one wouldn’t want to miss something great at the altar of being error-free. So sure, make pendants! Make mugs and t-shirts too – hell, I might even buy some if I didn’t think we had enough tat polluting the world and needlessly cluttering our homes and landfills – but again, I recognise I am in the minority and atypical.

        Whilst the idea is worth exploring, all I’m saying is that there are far more effective areas on which to spend energy and effort, that might help address more significant marketing problems, given limited marketing resources.

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        1. Inara Pey Post author

          “We can only guess of course, but there is a mountain of practical evidence suggests that a very, very, very insignificant proportion of residents volunteer to do so.”

          Yes, we can only guess, which is why – with respect – the second half of this statement is purely subjective, and possibly biased by your own leaning on the matter.

          As such, I’ll offer my own subjective counterpoint. There has been for a far while now, people who openly state in their profiles that they see no real boundary or divide between their virtual and physical selves, and see no differentiation between how they interact in either realm. Look at the numbers of SL users happy to directly link their SL identity with the physical identity of Facebook (the major driver behind the original SL capability in the viewer). As such, they may well welcome the opportunity to have a mug on their desk at home, a pendant to wear – or even a t-shirt or sweatshirt to wear in public.

          So, the “mountain of practical evidence” you refer to could be very well balanced-out by a counter “mountain of practical evidence”.

          “I don’t argue with the idea that there is a minority of people that might purchase such items (and by minority I would expect a maximum of 1-2% of residents)”

          Again, with respect, subjective guesswork, pulling a minimal figure out of the air. In this, my previous statement is perhaps a tad more objective: the demand for the pendant outstripped availability (and even that is subjective, as we have no idea if demand would have died out if the pendant had been available in unlimited numbers). As such, and given your own acknowledgement that you might buy the merchandise were it offered actually makes the point here: qualitative statements such as “minority”, “insignificant” and “atypical”, are perhaps anything but qualitative (or, indeed, quantitative).

          But still, my basic point remains: the goods are there, they’re not vapourware the Lab needs to exert huge amounts of time and resources bringing into being. The interest in such good is also there, and has been for years (vis: the aforementioned pendant, and this entire theme cropping-up over the passage of time in other blogs, forums and conversations). So why shouldn’t the Lab test the waters again? It isn’t actually detracting from anything else they’re do

          “Whilst the idea is worth exploring, all I’m saying is that there are far more effective areas on which to spend energy and effort, that might help address more significant marketing problems, given limited marketing resources.”

          I have to smile when I read phrases like this, as they give the impression matters are an “either / or” situation. Either the Lab markets merchandise to users, or they tackle other marketing problems; either the Lab does X or they do Y. It’s a subtle emotive pull within a discussion, giving little acknowledgement to the idea that the Lab can actually do both – in this case, offer the available merchandise to users and continue with other ongoing efforts elsewhere.

          So, I guess we’ll have to agree to differ on matters.

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          1. Becky

            Thanks for engaging in the discussion, Inara.

            You argue that my claim that a very insignificant amount of residents would be happy to reveal their association with Second Life would do so, being “purely subjective, and possibly biased by your own leaning on the matter.”

            Yes, it’s absolutely subjective, as I said: it’s nothing but a guess. An educated guess; however, based on over 7 years of experience interacting with SL residents, which I appreciate is limited, but considerably more than nothing. In the absence of data, all either of us can really do is guess. Your counterpoint that people openly refer to a fully permeable membrane between their analog and digital lives is fair, I still maintain that in practice, it is considerably more rare than the more common (again in my own experience): which is offering no RL data at all and often going as far as explicitly stating “my RL is none of your business stop asking”. It’d be worthwhile polling a random 100 profiles to test the hypothesis, wouldn’t it? Perhaps I can find an intern around here to do that for us… 😉

            I would be interested in knowing how many SL pendants were made that sold out so quickly. Was it 100? 500? 5000? 10,000? I’m sure you can appreciate that the signal that selling out these pendants would give us might depend on that number.

            In regards to the 1-2% figure that I expected the appeal of SL merchandise to be limited to, being a number I pulled “out of the air”: I appreciate I didn’t back that up. Because you weren’t impressed by my qualitative statements, I’ll share a concrete case that may act as a more objective example.

            As you probably know, Manchester United is the world’s most widely-supported football club. A big way that fans show their support and allegiance to the club is by buying branded merchandise, specifically football shirts.

            In 2012, the market research firm Kantar claimed that Manchester United had 659 million followers worldwide. Around the same time, Forbes appraised the Manchester United brand was worth 2.24 billion USD. These are huge numbers that might invite skepticism, especially since the number reported in 2007 was a more conservative 333 million. In the 5 years leading up to 2012, how many Manchester United shirts were sold? SportingIntelligence reported 1.4 million shirts were sold worldwide. Of course, this is one case, but if my job depended on such an making such a sales projection in order to justify an investment, I would find plenty more research that supports this conservative estimate that is far below 1% – namely because no football club in the world sells more shirts than Manchester United.

            To underscore the point, regardless of how we feel about either brand… Second Life is no Manchester United.

            In regards to suggesting that my assertion that business choices must often be made between either / or propositions is a subtle emotive pull, let me give you another example relating to the Manchester United case I shared above.

            Nike, the manufacturer of Manchester United’s shirts, can’t get produce every shirt for every football club in the world – they have to choose their markets. They can make shirts for Manchester United, but not for Liverpool. They can make shirts for Barcelona, but not for Real Madrid, they can make shirts for Inter Milan but not for AC Milan.

            In the real world, budgets are finite. Labour is finite. Time is finite. Every idea, every program, every investment competes for its share of the pie. A growing spread of any of these resources on insignificant diversions and “shiny pennies” is seed to diffusion of one of the most important marketing principles known: The Law of Focus.

            You can’t do everything. Choices must be made. Given the options which are real and exist. As a marketing professional, SL premiums would most certainly not be a choice I’d support.

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            1. Inara Pey Post author

              I don’t dispute the limited value proposition of SL as a brand to the world as a whole. Hence why I see it as a secondary benefit when compared to the appeal among users of owning something tangible that represents their engagement and involvement in Second Life. Even the “Still The Shit” t-shirts recently sported by Lab staffers gained considerable interest in terms of being made more widely available (they were also limited edition offered to Lab staff, I understand).

              But really, discussing SL as a value brand isn’t actually what the article is about. It is simply about the Lab leveraging an opportunity on the back of renewed interest expressed by users in various forums, comments, feedback, meetings, etc., in owning an item of merchandise.

              In this respect, budgets and laws of focus aren’t that big a deal. In terms of budget, the reality is that the Lab has a line of items they can offer users: the heavy lifting of design,sourcing and manufacture has already been done. These items are already ripe for outsourcing in terms of order processing and delivery, which removes much of the argument of focus. Nor does the Lab necessarily need to advance large stock holdings; many companies supplying merchandise to small businesses, etc., do so on the basis of manufacture (or supply)-on-demand, something I’ve been able to utilise myself in the past on behalf of the small businesses I’ve been involved in.

              So given this is the case, then why shouldn’t the Lab dip a toe or two into the water and see what happens?

              And as to the branding, the small comment I would say, is to agree with Shug; having a t-shirt, a mug, a pendant actually could help open the door to general conversation about Second Life, and also help deal with any “negative” impressions friends may have about it in doing so. Ergo, while it may be a very small impact, it shouldn’t necessarily be completely discounted.

              My own position is that while I’ve rarely directly discussed SL with friends and family, I’d still own a mug – heck, I’d go for a varsity-style jacket, were on available. Then, if friends want to engage me on the subject – fine; as to the rest of the world; well, I suspect the vast majority of the rest of the world wouldn’t bat an eyelid as the sight of me walking down the high street were my SL / LL varsity jacket, simply because SL probably doesn’t even register on most people’s consciousness (it just seems that way because we’re perhaps overly sensitive to “negativity” when it does appear, and so turn it into a much bigger elephant in the room than perhaps it really is where the majority of the general public is concerned). It would simply be seen as just another obscure logo.

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  4. Pingback: No logo for Second Life | Canary Beck

  5. Shug Maitland

    I’ll stick to my “conversation starters” benefit as primary. I may be unwilling, or selective in talking about MY Second Life. I am very willing to talk about Second Life as a virtual world experience.

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    1. Inara Pey Post author

      And in that, you raise a very important differentiator in matters, one that does further push the potential for merchandise.

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      1. Becky

        Indeed, the difference between sharing one’s personal Second Life, and sharing the notion that you support or are associated with Second Life is important. I wonder if the Lab, or any research firm, has shared any studies on what their Word of Mouth actually is? That would be fascinating to know, and would go a long ways to help answering these sort of debates.

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    2. Bernhard Drax

      Yeah Shug!! My shirt “Will Work for L$” is the biggest conversation starter I have ever owned, even more so than my “Let’s start a war said Maggie one day” shirt [by the band The Exploited of course] = 4 to 5 folks per day ask me what L$ means and I tell them about a virtual world where creativity runs amok….. 🙂

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  6. lokieliot

    A special edition 3D spacenavigator mouse with SL green light and silver Sl logo in the top. that would be cool, and useful… but only if SL is updated to support the new drivers

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