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Channel partners make tentative forays into Second Life

Channel partners are investigating the use of Second Life, although most say virtual worlds are not yet a viable venue for conducting business.

Ira Chandler was intrigued by what he heard about the virtual world Second Life (SL). So several years ago he joined, created an avatar (a graphical alter ego) and did some exploring.

Chandler, who is president of Ball Ground, Ga.-based Curbstone Corp., an IBM AS400 developer partner, was too busy to devote much time to virtual socializing. Still, he remained fascinated by the concept. When he heard that IBM had created a special island in SL specifically for partners, he checked it out.

"At first I wondered how someone could be harebrained enough to think Second Life would be appropriate for marketing and promotional activities," Chandler said. "But after just one event, I was sold."

He's since been to 12 events at IBM's PartnerWorld Industry Network Island in Second Life, which IBM built in early 2007 to facilitate partner collaboration. He's already forged two new business relationships and expects more to come. "As a way of getting people involved and excited about meeting and collaborating with others, I think it's brilliant," he said.

Founded in 2003, SL is a three-dimensional online world in which users can meet others, socialize, barter, shop and participate in any number of other activities. In 2007, real-life commercial enterprises entered SL with great fanfare, proclaiming it the business platform of the future for collaboration, communication and education.

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Yet the fact remains that SL is overwhelmingly a social and entertainment universe. Most of the users are there to play, not do business. The spacious open landscapes, state-of-the-art auditoriums and conference halls of vendors like IBM, Cisco, Dell and Sun are usually eerily empty. Unless there's a scheduled event, it can be difficult to locate an official company representative to chat with. And the typical user definitely walks a bit on the wild side.

"Second Life is a bit edgy for our market," said Dave Brown, chief scientist of Vision Solutions Inc., an IBM premier partner based in Irvine, Calif. "It's not really how we see ourselves connecting with our customers."

Ram Appliaraja, vice president of product marketing for Azul Systems Inc., was also wary. "It's an intriguing concept, and there's no reason to think that in the future it won't be a good way to build collaborative business communities. But as a forum for doing business, it's a little ahead of its time," Appliaraja said. Azul Systems, based in Mountain View, Calif., is an IBM partner that provides high-end Java solutions to enterprises.

Part of the problem is that the barrier to entry is so high, said Brown. Channel partners always have to prioritize their spending in both technology and time, and the benefits of a virtual reality presence are not proven, many say. First, new visitors to Second Life must download client software. Then they have to create avatars. Then they have to learn how to control their avatars -- how to walk, talk, sit and, yes, fly. There's the whole challenge of navigating around an immense virtual universe. Then there's the fact that since everyone is hidden behind an avatar, you're never really sure who you're dealing with at any given time.

Sun Microsystems Inc., which has a strong SL presence, says it is still figuring out how best to exploit the environment for business. "We don't have answers. We're learning more each day," said Fiona Gallagher, a senior brand manager at Sun. For now, Sun is working on developing a community by having technical chat sessions on NetBeans, Java, Project Wonderland and DarkStar.

"We're finding out that avatars interact differently with content than people do on a traditional website," Gallagher said. Sun has yet to specifically target partners in SL, "although partners do attend our events," she said. The company is considering putting up virtual spaces devoted to channel partners and working on delivering training via Second Life. "The Sun team has a lot of great experience in Second Life, and we believe that we can help partners get something out of it, too," she said.

IBM's Second Life initiative is part of a broader effort to get its partners to work more collaboratively with each other. "Second Life is just one of the vehicles we're using to do this," said Chris Wong, IBM's vice president of strategy and marketing for ISV and developer relations. Wong has held 14 industry-specific events in Second Life over the past 12 months. Virtual "speed partnering" has turned out to be one of his most successful ideas. Two event attendees sit down in a virtual meeting space and chat with each other for three minutes. Then a bell sounds and they move to the next meeting.

"In a one-hour period, you get to talk to 20 other partners," Wong said. "It's a tremendous opportunity to learn more about what others are doing in your market."

"It's very much like going to an in-person event, except you don't have to get on a plane and burn up an entire day traveling," said Bill Whalen, a sales and marketing manager at RJS Software Systems in Burnsville, Minn., an IBM partner. Whalen has been to four IBM SL events. "The disadvantage is that most IT people, unless they're in a pretty young age group, probably wouldn't do this kind of thing. It just wouldn't be their cup of tea."

Wong admits that the program is still in its infancy. "We've had about 150 people come through our program. With a partner base of 10,000 partners, obviously not many of them are using it yet. But we see this as an exciting part of our overall partner strategy," Wong said.

Cisco Systems Inc. has taken an altogether different approach. Although it certainly considered Second Life -- where it has a huge virtual presence -- it decided to create a more controlled environment for encouraging interaction with and between its partners. PartnerSpace was rolled out in January. It has a similar feel to Second Life -- it is built using a trade show metaphor, with booths manned by human figures, a virtual exhibit hall and meeting rooms -- yet it is in fact a much simpler environment. Users do not create avatars, and they navigate within the virtual space by pointing and clicking a mouse. Still, within this carefully defined space, there is room for interaction and collaboration, according to Derek Downs, CEO of Cistera Networks Inc., a Cisco partner based in Plano, Texas.

Cistera has built a virtual booth in Cisco's PartnerSpace that Downs said has experienced "very good attendance."

"Quite honestly, I didn't see the value add at all at first over just having a website," Downs admitted. But he has found that the marketing muscle Cisco is putting behind the effort, coupled with the fact that PartnerSpace really does provide a centralized location where the Cisco partner community can gather with potential customers, makes it well worth his while. "This is a place where true collaboration can take place," he said. "It's really dramatically different from a static website."

Downs believes that Cisco will eventually take what it learns in the more controlled PartnerSpace and apply it to a "real" virtual world like Second Life. "We're very much still in the discovery mode with Second Life," he said. "It will happen, but it will take time."

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