Real Problem in Virtual Traffic

Retailers in Second Life are finding it harder to maintain the avatars' attention.
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As real-world retailers are tallying up sales for October and prepping for the holiday season, many organizations in Second Life are noticing their foot traffic already slipping as the virtual novelty loses its luster.

Second Life, the massive multiplayer online world, allows anyone to log on through the Internet at any time and create 3-D computer-generated identities. These avatars are then free to explore the world that San Francisco-based Linden Lab has synthetically created.

While a majority of users are using Second Life (SL) as a social tool or as a means of communication, others sell virtual items or services for a profit. Members can enter their real-world credit-card information and get so-called Linden dollars, currently about 273 for every U.S. dollar.

Much like

Amazon.com

(AMZN) - Get Report

monitors shoppers or

Google

(GOOG) - Get Report

keeps tabs of searches, SL has its own measure to calculate how many users visit areas of the virtual world. The popularity of each area is measured in points based on the proportion of users' in-world time spent at a particular place. The traffic point total is cumulative over the life of the island, and that typically skews the data in favor of those in existence for longer period of time.

Among the top 20 most popular places in the SL Wednesday morning, more than half were dedicated to casinos and gambling. The traffic points for these 11 spots totaled 600,559. Four of the other nine positions were pornographic and sexually explicit destinations, where virtual strippers, escorts and private sex rooms are advertised.

The popularity of these gambling and sex-related areas mirrors that of HTML-coded Internet sites; this shouldn't shock anyone. However, the absence of physical-world companies on the popular places list is concerning, especially to those businesses thinking of dipping their toes in the SL pool.

Of course, some of the big name, real-world companies such as

Best Buy

(BBY) - Get Report

and

Wal-Mart

(WMT) - Get Report

have yet to take the SL plunge. The familiar names that have, though, are losing out to content generated by residents.

For example, the Ecstasy Mall, which features user-created jewelry, furniture, clothing and other items for avatars, had a traffic point total of 63,104 overall. Comparatively, the

Aimee Weber-designed American Apparel store earned only 1,033 shoppers.

While American Apparel's traffic pales in comparison with the Ecstasy Mall's, Millions of Us, a company whose clients include

Toyota Motors

(TM) - Get Report

and

Warner Brothers Records

(WMG) - Get Report

, had only 710 points in traffic.

Starwood Hotels'

(HOT)

"aloft" private island had a meager 692 total points.

Reebok

(RBK)

Island had 670 points. Sony/BMG's Media Island had only 429 visitors. Major League Baseball accumulated just 402 points from fans walking through the admission gate at the

virtual Yankee Stadium.

Nissan Motors'

(NSANY)

private island comes off as a winner compared with other real-world companies, garnering 4,907 points in traffic to date. A virtual vending machine filled with new Nissan Sentras greets avatars that have teleported to the island. With a PIN access code, visitors can then drive the virtual automobiles through a loop-the-loop and around the sprawling test track.

"On the whole, a majority are accepting commercial businesses like Nissan," said Giff Constable, vice president of business development with

Electric Sheep, the company hired to construct Nissan's virtual home. "A handful of people are worried about what brands are coming into Second Life. It's all about whether the company is providing something fun to the community, like the Nissan driving course does."

However, a closer examination unearths some initial problems for Nissan, even if they're using the site for strictly promotional purposes and not for a profit. The vending machine has dispensed 1,850 virtual rides as of 10:45 a.m. EST. SL's total number of residents at that time was 1.21 million, meaning that just 0.15% of the simulator's population had test-driven an automobile.

Technical difficulties also compounded problems for Nissan. A recent maintenance update to Linden Lab's system

shut SL down for five hours.

When SL's grid returned, the Nissan vending machine was functional, but the car delivered "didn't look as nice," says Constable. "However, it doesn't seem to have limited the success of it."

Still, the decline in interested residents visiting the virtual residences of real-world companies may stem from the fact that these businesses are merely translating real items to a virtual world instead of offering enhanced versions. As the gimmick fades, so does the foot traffic to each island.

"Each company doesn't need to completely need to copy the real world," Constable offers. "It all depends on the company and that company's goals."

Content in SL is limited only by how far one's imagination can stretch. There are no particularly innovative creations that businesses have offered yet, and it seems the virtual crowd isn't interested in what companies do have. Nissan's Sentra is identical to what is sitting on a real car lot. Starwood's virtual hotel is a model of what will be built in the real world. American Apparel is hawking digital versions of shirts that teens already own, and Reebok has the shoes to match.

"Things we did for Nissan were certainly like the real world," Constable said. "They were definitely interested in extending otherworldly elements, such as making the car fly. But with a specific time frame, we couldn't accomplish everything."

Constable explains that this is just a first step, though, and that SL users will have to stay tuned. "This is just the first step, and we'll have to see where it goes," he says. "Companies need to walk before they run. There's a lot more to come. There are a lot of possibilities."

While companies entering Second Life are hoping to sustain virtual life on their name alone, the traffic point system is proving that companies will need to extend their brands and become innovative with their products in a thoroughly innovative world.

Robert Holden is staff reporter Robert Holmes. He reports often from Second Life.