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It’s time for a change

I’m going to talk about expectation management and Second Life, so it is only fitting that I first talk about Star Wars, in 1977.

That Star Wars film (Episode IV, the first one made) was the most spoilerific effort that I have ever seen. For months before the premiere of the film the media was saturated with character-bios, plot summaries, clips of the film, and making-of featurettes.

Every major newspaper in the country ran plot summaries, or synopses, or serialisations. One ran a two-page spread in small type, covering the last 15 minutes of the movie in detail, with pictures.

Science Fiction and Fantasy films had always been a bit mysterious, full of the unexpected. Star Wars was not. You had to hang out under a rock not to know every twist and turn of the plot a month before it first appeared in the cinemas. You could even pick up much of the merchandise in advance, though it was not available in the truly vast quantities that would appear later.

Your expectations were completely managed. You knew everything there was to know about the film (except how it finally looked on the big screen – a bit washed-out and grainy, to tell the truth) before you saw it… and it delivered. It met your expectations exactly, with no surprises.

Well, with two surprises…. the hordes of people who turned up to see a Science Fiction/Fantasy film who would never have done so otherwise, and the amount of merchandise sold.

About a year later, the film Battlestar Galactica hit the cinemas, and I went to see the opening, and sat in an almost deserted cinema – there were perhaps no more than 20 people. It was pretty much SF/F fans only. Few people (even fans) expected decent plots, acting, characters and emotional involvement in an SF/F film, so people who liked that sort of thing didn’t usually turn up to them. Once again: Expectations.

Now, have I suggested that Linden Lab should undersell Second Life? No. I believe it should change strategies and manage expectations better.

Why? Because according to the best information I’ve been able to get (which is extremely scanty) only one in every one hundred new Second Life users stays on beyond their first day or two.

Most of you have seen the comments of various people who have tried Second Life and bailed out. “It’s clunky,” they say. “As a game it is very boring,” or “It’s really awkward to use.”

These people are expecting a far different experience to the sort of thing that Second Life delivers. For them, Second Life isn’t cool, because it isn’t the slick, smooth game-like experience that they are expecting. Second Life is a very cool experience to me, and quite probably to you, if you’re reading this – but it isn’t the experience that they’re expecting, and thus they do not ‘buy in’. There’s no sale of the experience of Second Life, because the experience of Second Life isn’t what they were expecting to ‘buy’.

Linden Lab sells Second Life as cool, but I think it is selling entirely the wrong kind of cool.

Second Life – as a ‘sale’ – is a progressive proposition because it is a service, not a basic product. You’re not just selling the idea once, you’re selling it long-term – because a user who signs up and doesn’t continue to use Second Life is a waste. Doubly a waste, in fact, since they may not return, even if the service subsequently were to suddenly start handing out buckets of cash and sackfuls of chocolate lesbians.

To obtain a new Second Life user, the user has to be aware of benefits. A user has to first be able to justify creating an account, installing the software and trying it out at all, and that’s where expectations come in. If the users expectations are grossly mismatched at this point, why would they continue? If they’ve been sold on the idea of one thing and presented with another, they’re going to feel misled – or ignorant. These are feelings you don’t want to generate in potential customers who you want to continue to stick with you on an ongoing basis.

It’s okay (from a business perspective, at least) to oversell one-off products – it’s done all the time – but this demonstrably doesn’t work well with ongoing services (or at least not without lock-in contracts). To sell services, you need to manage expectations. Second Life does poorly in this, and pretty much always has, selling expectations that are not met on arrival.

Even once you’ve passed that barrier, because some people do come into Second Life with quite realistic expectations (despite everything they may have heard or read about it), Second Life is poor at communicating benefits.

Each one of us committed users know that Second Life is cool, and that it has benefits that are meaningful to us. We’re already sold, though. A new user, however, may not initially perceive the benefits that are actually available to them as a Second Life user (heck, there’s all of us, if nothing else), and if they cannot justify the usage to themselves, they just stop.

New Second Life users are important. The total pool of active Second Life users is, quite frankly, too small to be self-sustaining indefinitely. Exactly where the line is that we need to cross to get into that comfort-zone is uncertain, but we’re very unlikely to be very close to it.

The Second Life experience is being sold the way it always has been, and this strategy is long past the point where we can confidently say that it simply does not work, but it is the only basic strategy that the Lab ever really uses for selling Second Life. It’s time for a change. Time and past time.

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