June 2010 will mark an important month in the history of Linden Lab and Second Life. On June 9th, the company announced a restructuring that included a 30% reduction of their staff. On June 24th, the company announced that CEO Mark Kingdon was stepping down and named company founder Philip Rosedale its interim CEO.
Second Life is clearly at a crossroads – it will be crucial for Linden Lab to determine the best path forward. To do so, they need to identify the right questions to ask and then determine the right answers to those questions.
What is your audience and customer segmentation?
Second Life takes quite a broad approach today – there are a wide assortment of communities [audience] (see their Destination Guide) and an equally wide assortment of land owners [customers]. Having cut 30% of staff, the question at this juncture is whether the company (and the platform) is well suited to cater to “anybody and everybody” or whether it’s better to narrow the focus.
One “focus area” may be in evolving the platform to cater to the hobbyists and loyalists who helped grow the Second Life community from the early days [consumer focus]. Another focus area, while unlikely, may be in catering to corporations for business use (I say “unlikely” because the Enterprise group was let go in the June staff reduction).
Yet another focus area may be in catering to particular categories (e.g. Music, Art, Education). If Second Life focused their resources around building the #1 immersive music experience, would that have a larger impact than evolving the broader platform to meet everyone’s needs?
So the question really comes down to “narrow vs. broad” – by identifying narrower segments to target their service, can Second Life create a more rewarding and enjoyable experience for both residents and land owners?
What is the revenue model?
Today, the Second Life revenue model is based around a virtual economy, whose currency is the Linden Dollar. Residents purchase Linden Dollars with real money (e.g. US Dollars) and can then buy land (in-world) or buy virtual goods from in-world merchants. One of the challenges inherent in this model is its dependence on others to sustain a viable audience (community).
The model works when the audience is growing and the community is thriving; however, when the audience declines and becomes less active, purveyors of virtual land find the ROI less compelling and the audience decline snowballs (since users have fewer residents to interact with each time they login).
Are you a media company or technology platform?
Second Life can go one of two ways here – they can morph into a media company (and have direct influence over the audience) or they can move to a pure-play technology platform provider, which shifts the audience generation “burden” to licensees of the platform. As a media company, they’d be similar to Facebook, Zynga, IMVU and Slide, with revenue being a mix of advertising, sponsorship and the sale of virtual goods.
Today, I’d say that Second Life is somewhere in between – they’re a technology platform that has no explicit and associated “force” to drive audience (like a media company does). Resolving this “grey area” will be important.
Where do you take the technology?
To some degree, the technology vision was shared in the June 2010 restructuring announcement – the company will migrate Second Life to a web-based experience, with no software download – and, they’d look to integrate popular social networks to be more accessible and relevant. Of course, there’s a delicate balance to manage here, since a core component of the Second Life community uses the service for the immersive experience that a downloaded client can deliver.
Here, Second Life can take a page out of OnLive’s book – if OnLive can deliver immersive, action-rich, multi-player video games from the cloud, then one would imagine that a 3D immersive virtual worlds can move to the cloud as well (though, of course, it’s not trivial to achieve). Second Life needs to think beyond the web as well and determine the viability for apps running on iPad/iPhone, Android and related mobile operating systems.
My Answers (Recommendations)
These are obviously complex questions that require a lot of analysis – in addition, there may be other questions that need to be asked. The answers to these questions are interrelated and need to be answered together, not individually. Here are my high level answers / recommendations:
- Audience and customer segmentation: Go narrow – you’ll lose segments of your user base, but the core segments you choose to focus on will see solutions and experiences that are more targeted and relevant. Build upon these small successes and grow outward again.
- Revenue model: Move to a SaaS licensing model (priced in US Dollars) – keep the Linden Dollar currency system in place for the purchase of in-world virtual goods.
- Media company or technology platform: Become a pure-play technology platform that partners with media companies as a sales channel. Give media companies incentives and easy-to-use tools that foster growth in virtual real estate – encourage them to be your sales champions and bring their audiences into the community.
- Technology evolution: Complete the transition to a 100% web-based offering (no small task!) – and, on the journey there, have plans in place for iPad and Android apps.
Times of turmoil give companies the opportunity to throw convention out the window and reinvent themselves. Consider another company whose original founder returned to transform them from a “has been” to the most valuable technology company on the planet: