Second Coming?

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Second Life (SL) is part of a new media category known as “virtual worlds”—an area that has been receiving a lot of attention recently. 

The channel's ascension begs the question: What possibilities exist for SL's use in pharma healthcare marketing and sales? To better answer this, I recently went on an expedition to see what SL applications presently exist and which are being talked about, both in-world and out. 

Virtual Worlds: A Media Definition
Virtual worlds (also known as metaverses), massive multi-player online games (MMOGs), online simulations—in these alternate worlds viewed via computer screen or goggles, one's avatar is able to interact with its surrounding just as we do in our everyday lives. 

In SL, your avatar can have a wardrobe, a house or a car. Users can adopt a network of friends and acquaintances who converse via text and voice in addition to avatar's non-verbal expressions and gestures. You could even be part of a growing class of SL professionals who own virtual businesses and make their living through the sale of clothing, houses and other services for avatars who pay with Linden Dollars (which are convertible to US dollars).There are regularly published newspapers, MetaVerse Messenger and AvaStar. They keep up with the news in these spaces. And yes, there is an association (http://associationofvirtualworlds.ning.com) and conference (http://www.virtualworlds2007.com) related to this space. 

SL, the most lauded though not the largest virtual world, claims 13.4 million uniquely named avatar accounts of which 682,479 have been in-world in the last month (as of April 29, 2008). This is not a mass medium to say the least. John Anderton, the originator of the Centers for Disease Control's (CDC) Second Life Island sees SL as “a social movement and a glimpse into the future of social interaction, learning and even being.” (See: http://www.cdc.gov/about/stateofcdc/html/commu
nityp2.htm)

This social aspect that makes virtual worlds a richer sibling of more familiar social media channels like blogs and online social communities. As a medium, virtual worlds are differentiated from other media in that they are immersive and interactive. They are capable of facilitating communication, education and entertainment like other media and have the additional advantages of allowing tactile interaction with an environment that enables kinesthetic learning and repetitive practice at a fraction of the development or logistical expense and safety risk that comes with such activities in the real world. Virtual worlds also allow people to interact, via their avatars, in common learning environments, eliminating the barriers of distance inherent with the real world. It is this differential characteristic which makes virtual worlds attractive primarily as a medium for pharma healthcare education and training of salesforces, key opinion leaders (KOLs) and healthcare professionals. It is a medium that also has all the communications, branding and entertainment advantages of other media.

Applications and opportunities for pharma 
In my research of healthcare uses of virtual worlds, the most compelling and unique applications were in the areas of education & training and research.When you consider the immersive nature of this medium, you can see how it would be particularly applicable to devices and equipment where demonstration and tactile use is inherent to the product. 

You can just touch (pun intended) the possibilities for situations like surgeons' preceptorships, salesforce training, product or process demonstrations, virtual environments which mimic the real world. The best examples of this were Play2Train, Ann Myers Medical Center and Second Health London.

When thinking about product and experiential research, you can see how 3D product design and testing can be revolutionized when conducted in 3D virtual world environments both from an innovation and a cost perspective. Additionally, you can use this medium to test environments for customer compatibility and delight as I witnessed being done by Kraft (supermarkets) and StarWood (hotels).

Though I think it's too early for most pharma brand categories, the fact is that SL has the potential for deployment of every kind of marketing tactic that exists in the real world right down to avatar sales reps. 

The reason it is too early is because the customer is not there yet in large enough numbers to make SL a viable mass medium. That said, the innovative first movers among us should seriously consider SL marketing and sales for categories whose target demographic and psychographic happens to be on SL in large numbers, i.e. gamers, the young and the disabled.

The American Cancer Society's annual Relay for Life is the best example I found. Marketers should also consider the medium for:
  • Brands that want the reputational advantages that come from venturing early into new innovative spaces as well as engaging in disease education initiatives.
  • Brands that believe in the use of media frequented by “early adopting influentials” whose word of mouth, both in- and off-world, can benefit the brand.
  • Brands that have “knowledge” products and services that could be potentially sold “in-world” creating Linden dollar revenue for the brand.
  • The hosting of virtual events from conferences to health fairs to fund raisers focused on therapeutic areas of interest.

While these are all possibilities, I did not find any pharma companies in SL pursuing them. As with all social media, there is the potential for pharma healthcare to engage in the activity of support and community, if only from a non-branded educational perspective today. 

The great appeal of virtual worlds is in the real community they enable. I started my research into this medium in search of diabetes support communities, which I found. 

Along the way, I found similar resources most prominently in the areas of mental health, sexual health and cancer, all areas where there is a great deal of social shame and a high desire for privacy in the real world. Additionally, I found hospitals and medical clinics, medical and healthcare libraries, and psychology and counseling practices. 

Their uses were largely for virtual training and practice, rich, interactive education in immersive environments and at times in a community of avatars.  

Virtual World Risks & Drawbacks
Though this medium has extraordinary potential in the application areas described above, as always, there are risk areas to consider. The most prevalent are the big three from FDA—off-label communications, fair balance requirements and adverse reactions reporting. These must be managed in this medium as in all other rich, interactive and social media. As such, non-branded educational experiences are safest to execute. Branded experiences must contain all required fair balance, and interactive scenarios will need to include rules of engagement to define appropriate conversation with corresponding referral instructions to a company's medical department should an engaged avatar want to gain additional information that is inappropriate to distribute in-world. 
Because SL is a transnational entity where a significant number of users are non-US citizens, pains must be made to label branded information for its “national” appropriateness to account for differences in international regulations. 

As SL is a virtual world, which runs on computer networks, it continues to experience technical glitches which occasionally hamper the experience. For this reason, it is necessary to adopt experienced SL development partners who are skilled in optimally constructing virtual environments and objects. 

Now is also the time to start engaging our internal IT groups for partnering in learning about the implications of SL applications for company IT policy and security. Having not crossed these bridges yet myself, I do not know that there are any significant risks here but the point is to get started engaging and learning.

The good news here is that, like with online social media, while there are risks, they are far from insurmountable and with prudent management, make virtual worlds an area we can all immediately begin to learn how to use. 

As anyone who has used SL can attest, the user interface takes patience and practice to master. This causes me to believe that in the short term only gamers and the most motivated of users will avail themselves of this medium until it becomes more user-friendly. This is one of the reasons I view this medium as better for education and training of select customer groups rather than a mass medium.

Next steps
Armed with this research, I am convinced that virtual worlds have immediate and extraordinary potential in the areas of training, education and non-branded support for our professional and consumer customers as well as our salesforces. 

SL is not a mass medium, but rather a networked influencer medium good for social interactions with small customer and stakeholder groups. It is also a great medium for testing and research, especially of devices, equipment, environments and, dare I say, sales forces. 

As with all new media, the sooner we jump in, the faster we learn and the better we create customer value, and yes, sales. So dive in, and I look forward to seeing you in the virtual world soon. 

Craig DeLarge is associate director, eMarketing & relationship marketing, at Novo Nordisk US, and also an adjunct marketing professor at Philadelphia University and Chestnut Hill College
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