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Alternative realities
 
Virtual world marketing, while not to everyone’s taste, is gaining in efficacy as more people are becoming absorbed in online alternative existences. Peter Davy travels from MySpace to Second Life and discovers how some are already taking advantage of the opportunities
 

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.

Social welfare

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 Ball.

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 of supporters.

“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.

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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 in there.”

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 for others.

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 (a.yak@savethechildren.org).

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

MySpace:
www.myspace.com
The best known social networking site, with blogs, forums, email, groups, videos and music

Bebo:
www.bebo.com
Similar to MySpace but now more popular in the UK, according to some measures

Youtube:

www.youtube.com
The best known video sharing site

Flickr:
www.flickr.com
The best known photo sharing site

Blogger:
www.blogger.com
Easily create and share blogs

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