The discussion arising from Wednesday’s ‘Meet the Lindens’ interview between Saffia Widdershins, Elrik Merlin (PrimPerfect), Xiola Linden (Lead Community Manager, Linden Lab) and Pete Linden (Peter Gray, Senior Director, Global Communications, Linden Lab) delved into meaningful specifics about new user acquisition. As it turns out, this might arguably be one of the most important interviews of the set of five, because Ebbe Altberg said during his interview today that improving the Second Life new user acquisition process is where the Lab will “probably spend more of our energy on than anything else.”
In this post, I’ll aim to not only share Pete Linden’s approach to how Linden Lab is marketing Second Life and Project Sansar, but to also attempt to challenge the notion that the Lab does not market its products, doesn’t take marketing seriously, or does not do it in a sophisticated way. In reality, the opposite is the case.
After Ms Widdershins set the context of this talk among the other talks happening that day, Mr Merlin joked that “Meet the Non-Profit” (another scheduled interview) sounded a bit like they were going to interview someone who was not a prophet. I couldn’t help but smile at Ms Widdershins’ quick-witted response, when she said “Well, that’s true yes, they have no predictions about the future whatsoever, it’s the Linden’s we ask about the future”, to which Mr Merlin responded: “Absolutely, and we will!”
From this, I felt that this talk might be kicking off in the right direction, and I am happy to report that I was not disappointed. I won’t be sharing a blow-by-blow account of this interview – here it is in video:
It might have been because the guests were more verbal, or maybe it was that the scope was more focused on the present and the future, or maybe it was just because this is a subject area that most interests me – but I found this interview to be both illuminating and entertaining, and considerably more revealing than either of the Monday or Tuesday interviews earlier this week.
How Linden Lab divides marketing responsibilities among its team
After 6 minutes of dispensing with the guest’s necessary introductions, backgrounds and personal experiences with Second Life – including some of Ms Widdershins’ wistful remembrances of past shared acquaintances between Pete and herself – Mr Merlin brought things back to the present moment by asking both Xiola and Pete about what their jobs entailed.
Xiola shared that she is mainly responsible for the curation of user-generated content, driving inworld initiatives like meetups and running across folks inworld to help them get where they need to be.
Pete shared that he initially focussed on public relations for the Lab and now leads the marketing team, which entails managing overall brand and messaging, focusing on acquisition, retention, and engagement, and working with Xiola on the community side of things.
Pete further added that the he works with Danger and Patch Linden on the inworld part of the welcome experience, but that his team mainly focuses on user acquisition – like online advertising and website landing pages.
In later correspondence between us, Pete clarified this with me: “The inworld welcome experience currently is Product’s domain, but Marketing and Product are of course both concerned with the new user flow from how they get to the product to their first experience inworld, and it’s something we’re all interested in optimizing.”
At this stage, I was glad to hear that Pete decided to ‘dive into some detail’ which is where I found the most interesting aspects of the interview.
The Challenges of marketing a product to a highly-diverse consumer base
In regards to the challenges of marketing such a multi-faceted product, Pete said: “One of the challenges with Second Life, because it’s so broad, is that it’s very hard to push everyone through a singular front door of Second Life.com – this can be difficult because some images around specific uses might put off others, or may not appeal to them.”
Pete added that using specific language is also very important to attract specific user segments, for example: “Describing entrepreneurial opportunity or scripting capability may be totally uninteresting to someone just interested in meeting people from around the world. Similarly, someone looking to form new relationships might be interested in seeing attractive avatars, while someone looking to solve a professional problem or educate a class may be put off by avatars in bathing suits.”
What this level of thinking tells me is that Pete (and the marketing team at Linden Lab) have spent time analysing and considering the specific use cases and user needs of the target market for Second Life (as I would expect). This is in contrast with what I’ve heard residents complain about in conversations with them inworld, for example: That Linden Lab did not understand how residents use Second Life, or that they are out of touch with the needs of those who might not be in the spotlight (e.g. the average resident).
Pete mentioned that one of the things he’s been excited about over the past number of months is that they improved and revamped a lot of “theme-specific landing pages”.
Using landing pages to target different user groups
In web marketing, a ‘landing page’ is a specially designed page on a website to which an advertiser can direct a visitor from a paid search advertisement (e.g. in Google Adwords)
For example, a Google paid search ad for Second Life looks like this (I’ve outlined the pay-per-click ad in a red box):
Advertisers (like Linden Lab, in this case) place these advertisements in Google (and other search engines) so that they appear when searchers type specific keyword phrases (e.g. “second life”). If a searcher clicks that ad, then Linden Lab pays Google a pay-per-click fee. Google then directs you to a page on the Second Life website. Similarly, if you had typed “virtual fashion”, you might have been served an ad by Linden Lab that if clicked directed you to a page about Second Life fashion. That page, is a landing page.
Pete gave some examples of this during the interview: “So a page around education, a page around music, fashion, and other broad topics like socialising / chatting, creating and we have more to do here. But what those landing pages help us do is that we’re able to serve content that really speaks to people that are interested in that particular facet and then run ads against that particular aspect of SL.”
This is an example of a landing page used by Linden Lab, targeted at searchers interested in fashion (note the focused imagery and messaging, yet minimalist design that focuses almost exclusively on the specific searcher’s interest, with the prominent call to action: “Play for free”):
Pete sent me the above page and said: “I love this page because of the imagery. Creating high-quality imagery really shows off SL to the outside world for our marketing materials is a lot harder than it sounds, and to be able to incorporate the work of talented SL users is an enormous help. We also use in-house talent and some Moles to help too, and I’m really proud of the new standard of quality we’re hitting.”
I agree that the quality is much better than we’ve seen before. Notwithstanding, there are some recommendations I will give to Pete to help optimise this page, but that’s a conversation for another time, and another venue.
My off-the-cuff observations aside, Pete also said that they are conducting A/B split testing on these pages. I recall Ebbe Linden mentioning this in his very first public address to Second Lifers at 2014 VWBPE Conference, and I was very happy to hear it.
What is A/B Split Testing and how does it help Linden Lab marketers?
A/B testing is comparing two versions of a webpage to see which one performs better. Using Google Content Experiments – as an example, advertisers can serve a visitor one version of a page (A) at 3:15 and 02 seconds, and the next visitor another version (B) of the page at 3:15 and 03 seconds, to see which one of the variants works better in getting sign-ups. In practice, an advertiser can continue improving the page options by running continuous tests, pitting the last winner against other options, to push the conversion rate higher and higher. It’s clear to me, at least, that the Lab intends to pursue this approach to optimisation, and evolve and improve their online marketing as much as possible
A/B testing is one of my jobs in my professional life, so I am very happy to see the Lab approaching their marketing so scientifically. (I’ve even used a similar approach on my region, when trying to increase the number of visitors that join my group using a split test between my two bots).
Using A/B testing, I’ve been able to dramatically raise conversion rates on web pages, so I expect this use of A/B testing is why Pete is so encouraged by his team’s wins in this area, and why Ebbe Linden said they are seeing a “big lifts” in conversion rates.
It’s important to note that the example above is only one user persona that the Lab might target with these ads, landing pages and A/B tests. Pete gave a further example about people who might be interested in vampire role play. They might search for that term in Google and then be presented with a specific ad that relates to vampire role play. When they click on this they then land on a specific page highlighting that activity in Second Life (as opposed to simply landing on a very general home page that wouldn’t highlight their specific interest).
Pete said that this was “a big effort recently. More landing pages, More themes to explore, more ways to improve that,” and that early results are ‘very promising’ because it allows them to show off parts of Second Life in a very compelling way that also doesn’t risk putting people off who aren’t interested in specific niche areas of SL.
Pete said that this campaign was “really effective” and that the Lab was “looking forward to expanding that.”
My recommendations for Linden Lab to target unique user groups
I was particularly heartened to see the Lab carrying out these types of campaigns, especially since it was something I recommended back in February, when I was interviewed by Draxtor Despres for the DraxFiles Radio Hour.
In that interview, I argued that Linden Lab should be target marketing, using fashion as an example. Mr Despres asked me: “When you focus on fashion. Or Linden Lab says we’re going to spend X amount of money on getting people who are interested in fashion, isn’t there a problem that the message then gets lost that SL can be so many different things for other people?… How do you solve that problem?”
I replied: “That’s a question I get asked everyday at my job… if you give people too many options they slow down, they don’t make the purchase decision and they leave. And so you really have to make things very simple because people aren’t willing to invest time.
“At the beginning, they don’t care. They’re looking for their immediate emotional need to be met, which is like “I want to amuse myself”. There are probably different triggers that would get them to encounter Second Life, but let’s just say that it’s: “I want something fun to do.” So then they look up some search term around an interest or a hobby, and a Second Life ad comes up. Ok, great, well that ad better be about the thing that they’re interested in (e.g. gardening) and they might say, ‘Oh! I can garden in Second Life.’
“And then, when they get to the Second Life website it needs to be damn easy. It really needs to be like one click or a couple of clicks and then they get what they want. And at the beginning, that’s all they want. They want to get in, and as they do something and as they invest and as they commit slowly over time with every extra 10 minutes of commitment, and then an hour of commitment, and then more hours of commitment, then you ask more of them. Then you can expose them to more to what Second Life can do, but you have to work with how much they’re willing to give because they’ll abandon at any moment – I think of them like shy animals: one little scare and they’re out of there.”
Mr Despres pressed me for more specifics, and used the example of educators: “Wouldn’t you have to speak to them directly and they go to the website and just see fashion, won’t they be turned off?”
I answered: All of this can be done quite quietly, so the homepage is never going to be about fashion. The homepage is not necessarily the gateway – I think that’s the important thing for people to realise – is that what you see on the homepage is meant to be a little more generic. But what I’m talking about here, is getting people to a landing page, or some sort of entry point that’s customised for them, which will therefore have a higher rate of conversion. So that’s something you could do, like for educators; if you truly thought – and remember, you gotta tie it back to the revenues – so basically what you’re saying here by asking that question is that you think: educators are going to drive revenue for Linden Lab – let’s be clear. Because if they’re not (directly or indirectly), and I don’t mean to be crass, but I can’t care.”
Then, Mr Despres said that perhaps the solution is customised viewers, and that Ebbe Linden had hinted at that in the past. So that, for example, an educator could customise the viewer experience so that only their stuff is being show and nothing regarding fashion or bikinis comes up – so they can completely market to their target group.
I answered: That’s exactly it! So you have a different acquisition stream for every different type of major user group that you think is going to drive revenues for you. You identify personas, so you say: Ok, we have an educator persona, and they’re going to come in on this page, and this is what they’re going to see – and you’re going to control it… And you’d focus all of your copy around that and that’s how you can make the benefits of the product (Second Life) communicate only the bits that that person wants to know. Because they don’t want to really care about the technical side, or they might not care about windlight, or whatever. They can have their own user experience basically just for them.”
Now, I am not claiming that I gave Linden Lab the idea to use user personas and theme-specific landing pages. First, this web marketing tactic is hardly groundbreaking and is the typical advice I would expect from any professional web marketing consultant. Second, Pete told me that – while he did listen to my interview with Mr Despres – Linden Lab have been using this tactic for some time preceding it.
What I’m trying to establish by sharing this story, is that I can assure you that Linden Lab is using well-established web marketing tactics to drive user acquisition. In other words, the commonly-held notion that Linden Lab either does not market, or does not take marketing seriously, is far from the truth.
Is the media misrepresenting Second Life?
Later in the interview, Mr Merlin asked a question that has been a bit of a thorn in the side of more than one Second Life blogger and commentator, which is: “Why doesn’t the media stop using screenshots from 2007?”
Pete said that it’s “Far less of an issue right now than it has been in the past, I think when Ebbe and I speak to press over the past year or two years, there are far fewer preconceived notions about what Second Life is or isn’t, or looks like, or what people are doing on this platform, than a few people had maybe in 2008. So that’s good.”
I’ve long argued that – far from having negative perceptions – the average person on the street feels either neutral or is unaware about Second Life. While there has been a lot of talk about how outsiders feel and judge SLers, most people are not even aware of its existence. This to me, is a huge opportunity for virtual worlds. We’re not starting from a negative place or have a great deal of unlearning to facilitate. We just need to educate and build awareness.
Pete continued by saying: “The problem is that there are a lot of folks in Second Life whose assumptions aren’t even based on 2007, they just figure it went away or they haven’t heard about it. And so that’s the bigger challenge, but those folks – when we speak to them – it’s actually a lot easier to get them up to speed because it’s easy to show them what things look like today and share some great stories about what folks are doing as examples.
“That’s quite easy, but as myself or I’m sure anybody here can appreciate, it’s enormously frustrating when an article is published and uses super outdated imagery or draws on some very outdated assumptions about what’s going on in Second Life.
“To be very fair to the folks writing those, I think it’s important to bear in mind that the media landscape has changed dramatically from even just a few years ago there are fewer and fewer people with less and less time to write, and less and less time to put in the research, even contact us (the company behind this platform), search for current images (we maintain a gallery that’s got some great looking shots in it) but I think for some folks it’s easier to pull something that was used on an article from their same publication many years ago.
“So, there’s some ongoing challenges, but I would say that I think there’s a lot of reason to be optimistic. On the PR side of things, the renewed interest in everything virtual is tremendous for us. I spent quite a lot of time with journalists bringing them up to speed on what’s going on with Second Life, how far things have come, what people are doing. And besides from just the interest, the assets that we’re able to offer these days are just incredible compared to 2 years ago, whether that’s great quality images that are coming both from the team in house, from some of the moles, and from some community contributors to wonderful videos like the “What Second Life means to me” series which Xiola mentioned, or the DraxFiles series, there’s a lot more material out there that is up to date and is of appropriate quality to really accurately represent our world. So that all makes it much easier to share with journalists and correct them when they have some really outdated stuff.”
Does mainstream media care about inworld activity?
Mr Merlin went on to ask if the mainstream journalists take much notice of inworld publicity efforts – and specifically blogs?
Personally, I don’t expect mainstream journalists to take any notice of inworld blogs or publicity efforts whatsoever, except of course the very, very popular ones that turn up in Google search results, or if journalists are directed to them by Linden Lab.
“I think it depends, the other variable to bear in mind is that not every journalist who is doing a piece related to Second Life is approaching it with the aim of capturing the totality of the virtual world, or really profiling everything. Oftentimes it’s a particular aspect that’s of interest, that’s the particular aspect that they’ll go after and if they find the material that they need for that – to present that angle – then they’re good. They may not need to go after more – it really depends on the angle, how much time they’re able to devote to it, whether or they make the effort to get in touch with us or with others, so a lot of variables there.
“The one thing I will say for a lot of us that are very close to it: It’s easy for me to get really frustrated when I see something ‘just a little bit off’, it’s a good thing to periodically put yourself in the shoes of their audience: ‘Ok, if I knew nothing about Second Life, would this give me an ok impression? It might not be 100% spot on, but is it close enough or is there something really factually inaccurate?’ And a lot of the time they do actually quite a nice job. And some of them do a phenomenal job, like folks who really take the time to actually even go inworld themselves, to speak with us, to speak with actual Second Life users who are really involved. Those tend to be by far the best pieces. So, we love seeing those.”
With this, Pete isn’t necessary saying that we should set a low bar, or accept misrepresentations or inaccurate coverage. What he is saying is: If someone writes a piece about music in Second Life and doesn’t mention the wealth of educational activity, they may not have captured 100%, but that’s doesn’t mean they’ve gotten it wrong. This is particularly relevant to the debate that raged a couple of months ago, with regards to the Atlas Obscura article about some very interesting and beautiful places in Second Life, while mentioning (but not delving into) some of the adult activities that many users occupy themselves inworld. It’s the Lab’s perspective that if an article is about one or two things, simply leaving out in-depth coverage of other things does not necessarily mean the article is poor or misleading.
Gearing up to market Project Sansar
In regards to Project Sansar, and how the Lab intends to communicate its launch to the outside world, Pete said: “With Project Sansar, and our outward communications about it, we’re trying to be smart about it. We want to be clear with all of you (the Second Life community) about what we’re doing and what everyone can expect, so that folks don’t get unnecessarily alarmed or misinformation doesn’t spread based on assumptions – that sort of thing.
“And we want to tell the outside world: Hey, we’re working on this, in part because we’re looking to hire a lot of people to help us. It’s a very exciting thing that we want to shout it from the rooftops. But at the same time we’re trying to be smart about it and restrain ourselves. We’re not quite yet showing demos to press. We’re not quite yet giving a big push in terms of PR or marketing, because we’re not yet ready to take advantage of that interest. We don’t want to drum up a tonne of excitement and an even longer list of people that want to get onto that platform even before we’re ready to take advantage of that. So that will come, but some of the stuff we’re working on now: the plans for revealing Project Sansar to the outside world, and how that roll out will go.”
Such great detail (without revealing secrets), and it was only 32 minutes into the interview. Ms Widdershins then diverted the conversation towards asking if Pete and Xiola engaged in any hobbies or did things to relax in while in Second Life. Later, both discussed what bringing people into Sansar might look like, and how community building might happen there. After a short discussion asking if Pete and Xiola had had a chance to enjoy SL12B, Ms Widdershins took questions from the audience.
How marketing Project Sansar will be very different from current SL marketing
At this stage I asked a question in local chat, directed at Pete Linden about who he considered Second Life’s target market to be, and how it might differ from Project Sansar’s target market. This was unseen or ignored by the hosts, but fortunately Pete saw my question, and IMed me to say that the “Second Life audience is super broad in demographic and use cases, but Second Life is also limited by a number of factors (quality, scale, ease of use, etc.). We’re thinking very differently with Project Sansar, so that it can reach a larger audience of creators and so they can better reach their audiences.”
This is consistent with Linden Lab CEO Ebbe Altberg’s remarks at the Silicon Valley Virtual Reality (SVVR) Conference this May, where he clearly laid out the six things that Linden Lab would think about differently, with regards to Project Sansar – which I’m about to coin: The Sansar Six:
- Discovery – helping users more easily find content
- Accessibility – making it easier for users to access the next generation world across devices and platforms
- Scalability – building with not just a few hundred in mind, but tens of thousands – in terms of size of creations, but also in terms of audience and market reach
- Quality – rethinking physics, lighting, scripting, visual quality, and audio fidelity
- Usability – making it easier to create and consume content in world
- Monetisation – changing the business model so that it it can scale by introducing revenue models that are more broad based (see my article on inworld ‘taxation’)
I’ll be talking a lot about The Sansar Six in future blog posts – and what I think can be done to do it best – stay tuned.
How Linden Lab marketers could use our help
An excellent question from the audience that was relayed by Ms Widdershins was: “What is the biggest challenge that Pete and Xiola need our help to overcome?” to which Pete answered:
“The more people that we’re in touch with, the more stories we know, the more people that are willing to share their stories, talk to folks outside of Second Life about what they do inworld, and why it matters to them. That’s a huge help to me. Anyone who reaches out willing to talk, I would love to hear what you’re up to, what Second Life means to you, and all that because often what happens is that we get in touch with a journalist – whether we proactively secure the opportunity, or they come to us, and a particular angle becomes of interest to them, e.g. “yeah, I’m really interested in, say… this one thing, or I’m writing from this particular angle.” The more examples that we’re able to put them in touch with, the more people that we’re able to point them to, by far, the better – so that’s a big help.”
I wrote this post to not only share Pete Linden’s approach to how Linden Lab is marketing Second Life and Project Sansar, but to also attempt to challenge the notion that the Lab does not market its products, doesn’t take marketing seriously, or does not do it in a sophisticated manner. In fairness, it’s rare for (A) the Lab to share their marketing approaches to such an extent and (B) for someone with a qualified perspective to analyse them with any sense of objectivity.
In reality, the opposite to the conventional wisdom is true: Linden Lab does market its products, they take marketing seriously, and they approach it using sophisticated and modern methods that seem to be working. This is great news for anyone as interested in the healthy future of this company, and its products, as I am.
Pete Linden and I have discussed the possibility of sitting down on a one-to-one basis to explore Linden Lab’s marketing approaches and results further, watch this space.