Thursday, October 4, 2007

User research for Second Life, virtual worlds in general

As of yet there's not a whole lot of research available publicly on the user experience in Second Life and virtual worlds overall. That's starting to change. Just this week a couple of reports have crossed my desk, one free and the other relatively inexpensive. Both are thought-provoking.

User Acceptance of Virtual Worlds bills itself as an "exploratory report" and with 250 respondents, that seems right. It's also fairly timely, having been fielded last spring. The authors, academics at Rollins College and Potsdam University, present this summary of their findings, a sort of snapshot of their respondents:
· 90% of respondents have less than a year experience on Second Life.
· 70% access Second Life from home.
· 67% of respondents are not afraid of giving personal information.
· Almost 60% are very likely to buy virtual goods from Second Life, and 42% are willing to use their credit card.
· 70% perceive Second Life to improve collaboration, 69% say it improves communication, and 61% say it improves cooperation between people.
· 56% of respondents perceive Second Life as easy to use.
· Finally, people are using Second Life not to change their identity, but rather to explore and visit new places and meet people.
The authors also asked their respondents what other social networks they are on, and got this response: 72% also use YouTube, 47% use Flickr, 40% use MySpace, 39% use FaceBook and 33% use LinkedIn.

The reason I found this interesting was that I read this report just after I read Social Technographics, a Forrester report from last spring that attempt to segment consumers of all kinds of social media, describing them by their placement on the "participation ladder" (see image here, in a thoughtful blog post on the Business Communicators of Second Life blog that discusses the Social Technographics report in detail).

According to report author Charlene Li, the ladder represents "six increasing levels of a participation in social technologies. Participation at one level may or may not overlap with participation at other levels." The six rungs are (in descending order of intensity of participation):
· Creators. Online consumers who publish blogs, maintain Web pages, or upload videos to sites like YouTube at least once per month. Creators, an elite group, include just 13% of the adult online population. Creators are generally young — the average age of adult users is 39 — but are evenly split between men and women.

· Critics. These online consumers participate by commenting on blogs or posting ratings and reviews on sites like Critics represent 19% of all adult online consumers and on average are several years older than Creators.

· Collectors. Users who save URLs on a social bookmarking service like or use RSS feeds on Bloglines, thus creating metadata that’s shared with the entire community. Collectors represent 15% of the adult online population and are the most male-dominated of all the Social Technographics groups.

· Joiners. This unique group has just one defining behavior — using a social networking site like or Facebook. They represent only 19% of the adult online population and are the youngest of the Social Technographics groups. They are highly likely to engage in other Social Computing activities — 56% also read blogs, while 30% publish blogs.

· Spectators. This group of blog readers, video viewers, and podcast listeners, which represents 33% of the adult online population, is important as the audience for the social content made by everyone else. The most common activity for Spectators is reading blogs.

· Inactives. Today, 52% of online adults do not participate at all in social computing activities. These Inactives have an average age of 50, are more likely to be women, and are much less likely to consider themselves leaders or tell their friends about products that interest them.
The way I am reading the results from these studies, Second Life is full of Creators and Joiners. The Social Technographics report also offers profile information on users with different kinds of motivations. Social media users who are entertainment-motivated (which would be many Second Life users) tend to "participate in greater numbers," says the report (as opposed to those whose use of social media is motivated by career or family). As more job fairs and other recruiting activities start to take place in Second Life, we may see greater numbers of career-motivated people there.

These studies are interesting for the snapshots they offer, but overall there is a dearth of research available on virtual worlds users -- what motivates them, what interests them, who they are, what their real-life and virtual-worlds habits are, how those are different and how those are similar.

There's a move afoot to start a Metaverse Market Index, which will offer an independent, welcome source for tracking data and for virtual worlds user research. Once the MMI gets started, the virtual worlds world will be less like the Wild West and more like....the Wild West with a couple of badged sheriffs, maybe . Data should begin to come from that effort by mid-2008.

Meanwhile, companies that would like to explore the possibilities of virtual worlds for their brands would be advised to do primary research specifically tailored to their brand (both in-world and real-life). Call us if you need help with that. That we can do!

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