Second Life New Resident Retention I: Fantasy, Wish Fulfillment, and Stipends

I’ve discussed problems with Second Life’s new user experience problems in two previous posts, but the new user experience is only part of a larger problem that’s plagued Second Life since day one: retention, i.e. keeping the new residents that Linden Lab gets. It’s not enough just to teach someone about Second Life and the basics of how to use it; they have to find a reason to stick around. As it stands less than 1% of people signing up stay. That can be improved.

I like to say that Second Life has three “killer apps” that people stay for: socializing, shopping, and sex. That’s true, but like many true things it’s also a more than a bit of an oversimplification. And it leaves out a lot of people: those who use Second Life primarily as a creative outlet, the small fraction of residents who have managed to make real life money in world, and people who use Second Life as a tool for education or training. And of course all these categories overlap to some extent—though very often on multiple avatars for the same person.

But people primarily come to—and stay—in Second Life for two broad reasons: to be with other people and wish fulfillment. And its often hard to separate the two.

Once criticism often leveled at Second Life is that it traps people in a fantasy at the expense of their real lives, that it’s an addiction, an excuse to avoid improving one’s actual life. Things are not that simple. There are things in everyone’s life, that no matter how hard that they try, that can’t be changed. This is nothing new. In that sense, Second Life fulfills the same needs that every movie, television show, or novel caters to. The need to experience things that you can’t in ordinary life.

Linden Lab’s marketing of Second Life has alternately embraced this reality and run away from it. And it’s new user experience has only ever barely dealt with it. Until as an institution, Linden Lab comes to terms with what it is selling, it’s never going to retain new users in the numbers it would like. It’s made steps in the right direction, but each time, the Lab has been hampered by missing key components of the new user retention puzzle.

For example, during Philip Rosedale’s second tenure as CEO, Linden Lab moved to the idea of no orientation at all and throwing people directly to content that they thought would connect with them. On paper, that’s a great idea. It directly addresses the wish fulfillment part of the equation. But great content on empty sims is hollow and is far from compelling. It leaves out the critical social component. No real effort was ever made to work with the communities to ensure that those sims were ready for the new residents. For that matter, no real effort was even made to send new users to sims at times there would likely be anyone there.

As I’ve addressed earlier, some form of orientation is vital. Nearly every MMO out there has its newbie quests and/or an epic cut scene telling the story of the setting. But it is not enough. To keep people, Second Life needs to provide a clear path to address the both social and wish fulfillment parts of the new user retention equation.

I’m going to address the wish fulfillment component today.

The first thing that most new users try to do is to personalize their avatar. I’ve already covered Linden Lab’s issue with starting avatar diversity, but there’s another problem with them—quality. The human starter avatars look great for 2010. It’s not 2010 anymore. Mesh and Materials have changed everything, but the new user selection of human avatars are still sporting flexi-prims and sculpty accessories. Linden Lab badly needs to update their selection.

But that’s not enough. The second or third question asked by most new users is “how do I get money?” Unlike an MMO, Second Life doesn’t have handy hordes of monsters to kill despoil of their gold. It has a real in world economy linked to real life. Having at least some money to spend is critical for allowing new users to create an avatar that expresses their personalities and their fantasies. It also encourages new users to engage with the in world economy.

To help keep new residents, Linden Lab needs to bring back something they discarded a long time ago: stipends for free accounts.

Linden Lab used to provide a minimal stipend of 50L$ a week to everyone who finished the tutorial and logged in at least once a week. This program ended in 2006. The reason given was that the non-premium stipend was being farmed by people with scores of alts. And it was. But there are ways to prevent that sort of abuse using the same IP address and MAC address checks that are used to limit access by banned accounts.

Of course the system will still be gamed by some. So what?

One thing that Linden Lab has had trouble with in the past is allowing the perfect to be the enemy of the good. Anything you create, someone will game. But if you can keep the gaming of a stipend for all users to a minimum, the benefits will outweigh the problems. I’d suggest trying a stipend that starts at 200L$ for completing the orientation path, then is 100L$ a week for the first four weeks, then 50L$ a week for the next eight, then ends. Along the way, I’d include information each week about how to use the Lindex.

Now that new users have been set up with some L$ cash, where do they spend it, and get a good bang for their buck? Linden Lab should create a registry of in-world merchants who offer quality discounted items to new residents, both at their in-world locations and at a dedicated new resident store on Second Life Marketplace.

Such a new resident discount program should be open to all creators, and rank contributors purely by the popularity of the contributor’s items. The Lab could compensate creators for their participation in the program by offering advertising space in Linden-owned new user areas in exchange. The more popular a creator’s items are, the more “ad credits” he or she accumulates, with which they can buy ads with better placement or more repetitions. Such a system can be automated, so as too minimize the investment of Linden employee time.

Next: A Place to Call Home

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