Online virtual worlds are just for teenagers and twenty-somethings, right? To some extent, yes, but not entirely.
Organisations are starting to explore the benefits of using virtual worlds not just to share information, hold meetings and allow employees to learn new skills, but to provide an interactive multimedia online environment to reach out to customers.
Probably the best known virtual world is Second Life, a site in which there were 12.6 million 'residents' as of July 2008, a growth of 900 per cent over the previous year.
Large corporations that have already set up a presence in Second Life include IBM, which is using the virtual world to collaborate with clients and partners, offering a place where they can meet with IBM representatives, learn about products and services, and access technical support information.
However, at this point, corporate 'islands' in Second Life rather resemble the early days of the internet, when websites were largely collections of static information such as product brochures and contact details.
They are rather desolate places to visit, and few companies even staff their islands with a support avatar.
One organisation that aims to change this is CIGNA Healthcare, a US-based health service organisation that provides a wide range of healthcare products and services to individuals.
Faced with ever increasing healthcare costs, CIGNA claims that the only sustainable way forward for its business is to prevent people becoming sick in the first place.
The company is therefore investing in new products and services to engage with its customers in order to encourage and support individuals to make lifestyle changes to improve their health. It defines this as its "health advocacy strategy".
In order to do this, CIGNA needs to reach out to those consumers who will be its clients of the future, instilling its messages into the younger generation now so that they can benefit from making healthier life choices throughout their lives.
But the organisation has found it hard to engage with this target audience through traditional channels, such as marketing brochures and information on the internet.
Rather, the younger generation is growing up well-versed in the use of technology, eschewing email in favour of faster instant messaging, and favouring social platforms such as Facebook and virtual worlds where they can collaborate and interact with friends, as well as meeting new contacts.
The idea is that, if you want to engage with this audience, you had better go where they go and meet them on their own ground.
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