Philip Rosedale, the founder of virtual world Second Life,
likes to tell people that what he’s building is not
a game but a new country. In an interview with the Times
recently, he said the online 3D environment was “in
competition with the real world”.
And people are starting to take him seriously. Participants
in Second Life (of which there are about two million registered)
can buy and sell goods and property there in currency that
can be changed into real money. Corporates such as Adidas,
Toyota, Reuters and IBM already have a presence and Vodafone
recently announced plans to set up an island in the game.
US Congressmen have been looking at the tax issues amid
fears the IRS might start charging capital gains tax on
the assets players hold in the virtual world.
Charities have also been keen to explore the potential.
Last July the American Cancer Society held a virtual marathon
relay there. Over 1,000 people walked their in-world characters
(called avatars) around a 96-acre 3D course that included
the chance to go on the London Eye or sky-dive off the the
Eiffel Tower. The event raised close to $40,000.
In the UK, meanwhile, Save the Children became the first
to get involved in December, with its Second Life “Yak
Shack” selling the 3D animated animals to punters
for 1,000 Linden dollars (the in-world currency) –
about £1.80 in real money.
It has since been followed by a more ambitious project by
World Vision. It launched an African village later the same
month where users could interact with items from the charity’s
Alternative Gift Catalogue – milking a cow or sitting
in a latrine – before linking through to the World
Vision website to make a purchase.
In fact, for all the hype, Second Life is just part of a
wider trend towards the use of “social media”
such as blogs, podcasts and other (2D) networking websites.
What it isn’t, insists World Vision’s Alternative
Gift Catalogue marketing manager, David Thompson, is a game.
“It’s not an environment where people run around
shooting each other,” he explains. “It’s
a place where people meet each other and create things.”
Consequently, Second Life appeals to an older and more female
demographic (with at least half the users women and an average
age of 30 to 35) than might be expected.
It is these two characteristics – user-generated content
and social interaction – that are central to these
technologies, and charities are increasingly learning to
harness them for marketing and campaigning.
Amnesty is a good example. It has yet to decide on whether
to get involved with Second Life, but it’s already
an enthusiastic supporter of blogs, networking sites and
podcasts. It used a page on website MySpace (where users
put up an online profile, post comments and link to other
users’ pages) as well as podcasts and viral video
clips (on Youtube) to promote its annual Sleeping Policeman’s
It has also used the tools for campaigning: close to 60,000
people have been recruited to its irrepressible.info campaign.
Users signed up by clicking on a campaign “badge”
on someone else’s website, blog or MySpace page, which
in turn gave them the opportunity to display a badge on
theirs for other users to click on. A call to bloggers (the
now ubiquitous online diary writers) to support the campaign
helped to publicise it.
“These are increasingly important media outlets, and
we want to be part of them as they develop,” explains
Amnesty spokesperson Steve Ballinger.
He’s not alone in his enthusiasm. Steve Bridger, a
member of NCVO’s ICT Foresight e-panel and former
charities development manager at Justgiving, writes the
nfp 2.0 charity technology blog. He argues that such media
is here to stay and has the potential to radically alter
the way charities operate by putting more power in the hands
“It’s absolutely not a fad. These are fundamental
changes and there are huge opportunities for charities to
grasp,” he says. “Charities have masses of stories
to tell, and things like blogs provide fantastic vehicles
to tell them.”
Bridger even recommends that charities appoint a “buzz
director” to oversee the use of such new media.
Not everyone is so convinced
“A buzz director? Come on, let’s get real,”
retorts Allan Benamer a fellow blogger (www.nonprofittechblog.org)
and IT director for a New York-based charity. “That’s
yet another cost to add to non-programme expenses. And what
numbers are there for the funds this buzz director is actually
going to generate?”
Benamer is particularly mean about Second Life, which he
reckons is simply a waste of time for non-profits. He points
out that although the site has about two million registered
users there’s reckoned to be an enormous number of
inactive accounts. Some put the number of active users as
low as 65,000, and only about 13,000 are online at any one
time. And only 30 per cent of those are UK-based. Interestingly,
Christian Aid – a keen user of blogs and podcasts
– has rejected going into Second Life because of this.
Even where the numbers are there, such as in MySpace, Bennamer
is sceptical of the scope for fundraising. “Here’s
the unfortunate, horrible truth about social networks: nobody’s
made any money,” he says. “I think they’re
a great idea; I just don’t think they’re profitable,
because nobody wants to click on ads when they’re
Not surprisingly, then, the World Vision and Save the Children
campaigns don’t seem to have had a massive financial
return. The former only launched its “village”
in December and it will run until March, so the results
are yet to be announced, but by the first week of January
it had had fewer than 150 visitors. Save the Children’s
Yak Shack, meanwhile, earned the charity around $500 dollars.
This isn’t the end of the world: both charities got
good deals for the design work involved from companies keen
to have the projects in their portfolios (World Vision from
start-up Copper Industries and Save the Children from advertising
agency Ogilvy). Furthermore, Linden Laboratories, the company
that runs Second Life offers cheap “land-rental”
for charities setting up in the world. However, the relatively
muted response makes it doubtful such moves would be profitable
Nevertheless, both charities seem pleased with the attention
their moves have attracted, and view the exercise as a learning
experience. A Save the Children spokesperson said the press
coverage alone had been fantastic, and the charity has set
up an email account for supporters to suggest what it could
do next in the virtual world (email@example.com).
And even if the return on investment from some social media
can be difficult to measure, the outlay for most is low.
Judith Habib, who used to run broadcast campaigns for the
BBC, now runs Sound Delivery, a company that helps charities
produce digital audio. She says charities can get their
own podcast up and running for well under £1,000 –
including the equipment, software and training.
“Charities have great stories, and they don’t
need to wait for the BBC to come and get them any more.
They can be pushing them out there through all the different
channels available,” she says. The costs involved
for setting up on the various social networking sites or
starting a blog are even lower, and can potentially bring
your charity to a much wider audience, given the tendency
for cross referencing in the online community.
However, there are also risks involved. As Christian Aid’s
Stephen Buckley explains, the further you get from the charity’s
central communications, the harder it is to regulate what’s
said. “Our editorial voice is strongest at the top
of the pyramid with the key corporate communications, but
as you move down to the more decentralised communications
through podcasting and blogging, we don’t exercise
the same amount of control,” he explains. When it
comes to the cross references on sites like MySpace or from
other blogs, charities can lose their influence entirely.
But for Steve Bridger, that’s exactly the point. “To
some extent you have to lose control of your corporate image
to make it work,” he says. “A lot of the people
who will end up spreading your message may not have a really
close affinity to the charity, but that means there’s
a huge opportunity for charities to tap into those people.
They’re just going to have to recognise that they
can’t always choose who their friends are.”
A selection of available social media websites
The best known social networking site, with blogs, forums,
email, groups, videos and music
Similar to MySpace but now more popular in the UK, according
to some measures
The best known video sharing site
The best known photo sharing site
Easily create and share blogs