Life as a Number

I spend a good part of every day “Listening” to the wide community of people that contribute to and populate Second Life. I read the Forums, read various Blogs and diatribes, and even spend a good part of time watching the JIRA. I do it mostly because I get some very good ideas for new products that way, but also because I like staying in touch and “in the know”. It does chew up a fair amount of time some days, but usually not that much … and the value returned for that investment is and has been very valuable.

Measuring Your Customers

What I do is a very informal version of something that many large companies invest a lot of time and money into … measuring their customer base. By “measuring”, I don’t just mean how many there are, but a whole range of measurements that are intended to help a company understand the people that purchase their products or services. While it has always been important for a company to understand its customers, the advent of the Internet has greatly improved the company’s ability to accurately and easily measure a wide range of statistics almost as a matter of doing business. No matter where you travel on the ‘Net, your actions are being tracked, logged, summarized and analyzed, all in the effort to better understand what you want and how to entice you out of your money.

Why does a company take the time and invest the money they do into such constant (and hopefully invisible) measurements? Simply put it’s because they want more money. Not that that’s a bad thing either. Understanding what the customer wants is absolutely crucial to staying in business. Those of us over 20 have seen some drastic changes in the world around us … all because the art of understanding the customer has become more a “Must” and less a “When we get the time” function. With so many easily implemented methods to make good measurements and to obtain real data that is accurate, any company that chooses to ignore their customer base is operating in a manner that is blind to today’s reality.

Demographics and the Internet

Look around this web page. You’ll notice a number of links and advertisements that are there in the hopes that you will click on one (or more). Some lead to people that pay to place the ad on this page, some belong to those that will only pay if you click their link. But the links and ads you see are not necessarily the same as those seen by everyone else. Why is that? Demographics.

Unless you’ve taken measures to hide everything about you and your browsing habits (which believe it or not can still be done), everything you’ve clicked, followed or browsed since who knows when goes into understanding you. By understanding you, the people placing ads and links on this page are trying their very best to NOT waste their money or time … and NOT to waste your time either. Face it, every time you click a link that takes you to a product or service that doesn’t interest you in the least, you’ve wasted your time, wasted the advertising company’s time and money, and more than likely pissed yourself off. None of those are things that help build business and win customers, and most companies realize that these days. In fact, Google has really made their biggest impact on us all because they’ve spent a lot of time perfecting and selling “Automatic Demographics”; tools that let even small companies benefit from the type and depth of customer measurement that used to be reserved for the “Big Boys”.

The Numbers and Linden Lab

So these days, and especially for those companies that are based on technology and/or provide their product via the Internet, guiding your business based on Customer Demographics is not only a wise thing to do, it’s incredibly simple too. And yet daily we are subjected to the wild gyrations of a company that is not only wholly dependent on technology and the Internet, but seems hell-bent on running away from the Demographics they have.

Just this year Linden Lab took the surprising and disappointing step of discontinuing publication of their In-World Statistics. While it caused an uproar among the Merchant community, overall it was barely noticed. There were quite a few folks, long-time residents of Second Life, that had predicted such an event. After all, the “Numbers” were getting worse and worse with each new report. We all surmised that the numbers had just gotten so poor that they could no longer justify investing the effort to candy coat them enough to make them palatable. But whatever the reason, at the core of their decision was the fact that their numbers are declining.┬áBut why is that? Why would a company that not long ago was a media darling find itself in the unwelcome position of a shrinking customer base, declining revenues and dissipating interest?

Personally I have a theory. It goes something like this:

“We don’t give a damn!”

I don’t mean that in a flip or sarcastic way either. I mean it as an absolutely cold-stare summation of reality. My theory is based on the actions and responses from the Lab in the past few years. It’s based on the steps they’ve taken, the projects they have invested time and money into, and the way they communicate with their own Customer Base. In short, it’s because they have shown, if not contempt then at least disdain for the Demographics (Numbers) laying at their feet.

Listening to Your Customers

Lets take some examples. Recently the Lab invested (and continues to invest) a pretty fair chunk of their effort into creating a new feature called Pathfinding. I will admit that I am neither a role-player nor gamer so I really don’t have any use for Pathfinding. But I do have a number of friends and customers that are one or both of those, and they don’t seem to understand the need for Pathfinding either. Basically Pathfinding allows the creation of objects that behave in a programmable manner when it comes to moving around in Second Life. You can make Zombies that are better at chasing around their victims, monsters that pop up in unexpected places and act in a remarkably intelligent and scary way, and even pets that track their owner around just like real-life pets are prone to do. (Like cats that MUST walk right in front of your feet! ARRGGHH!)

Pathfinding is a technology that is seen quite often in other places, typically MMO type games and platforms. It’s what makes taking on the opposition exciting and interesting, even though that opposition is run purely by computer. It’s “Neat Tech” … but it doesn’t really have a place in Second Life. Second Life is about personal interaction, socializing and community and creativity. It is not now and quite frankly shouldn’t ever become a place for advanced AI NPC’s and involved MMO gaming. Forcing SL into that mold is a blatant example of not listening to the customers.

Here’s another example, one that has recently been suggested and in typical fashion given pretty short shrift by the Lab … Virtual Landmarks. This idea was proposed by Toysoldier Thor in the Merchants Forum. Toy subsequently created a JIRA Issue on the idea, SVC-8082. He even went so far as to attend the User Group meeting for the group that oversees Simulator and Scripting. (A transcript of that initial meeting can be found here. The discussion starts at about [16:22].) Just today (Friday, August 10th) Toy attended the next meeting and brought the idea back up. The response he got floored me.

[16:42] Toysoldier Thor: Since last Friday there has been an amazing flurry of multiple articles and discussions on VLMs as well as the JIRA for VLMs has jumped from 15 to over 80 in just 1 week. The response on the idea of VLM’s has been overwhelming & extremely positive from the SL residents that have heard about VLMs or read one of the many articles written about it. (I can post the 3 main VLM articles if you want to read them Lindens).
[16:42] Toysoldier Thor: So my questions to the Lindens are: 1) when might we see a Linden response on the VLM jira (it is still officially untouched)? 2) Bigger question is if there is such a strong nearly unanimous strong support for a VLM service being developed for SL… honeslty… is this a factor for LL to consider it as a development priority or am I am the other SL residents wasting our time trying to see VLMs coming to light?
[16:43] Cheesey Linden: Toysoldier we are investigating the idea. When we have a better idea of the technical cost we will update the group/jira.
[16:43] Toysoldier Thor: that would be great
[16:43] Toysoldier Thor: have a lot of watchers wanting to see LL’s response to this
[16:45] Toysoldier Thor: So Cheesey – is there anything I can spearhead for the Lindens on this VLM jira? I want to help LL out if they need help…. I dont want to see this jira die as do tons of other residents
[16:46] Cheesey Linden: nothing right now. its a good idea, we just have to see if we can fit it into our schedule
[16:46] Toysoldier Thor: kk
[16:46] Cheesey Linden: which requires some research to see the extent of actual work involved
[16:47] Toysoldier Thor: please keep in mind that the VLM concept can be a phased in approach…. it does not have to go in as one whole end-to-end solution… the VLM-Mapping Service is the key

Pardon me?!? They have to check to see if they “can fit it into (their) schedule”???

What we see amply demonstrated here is once again Linden Lab is ignoring the most basic of company imperatives, listening to your customer. They have no interest whatsoever in guiding the company and its product based on feedback and valuable intelligence … and they don’t even have to pay for this intelligence. It’s given to them free and clear. Yet they treat it like rantings from a lunatic. “Humor them and they’ll go away.” I daresay Facebook would be far less success these days if they’d started with that attitude. (Although now that they’re public and massive, they seem to be developing it more and more every day.)

Where to get Second Life Demographics

For many companies this used to be a very vexing problem. Some years ago I was good friends with a college professor that had quit academia and gone into the business of providing demographics data to big companies. He made an amazing amount of money doing some pretty basic stuff … basic to him at least. However that was before the Internet came along, in fact it was before I owned my first personal computer and I owned one that predated the IBM PC by about 3 years. In the past decade I’d wager his business has become less and less profitable and more prone to seeing its customer base eaten away by the many technology-based tools available to every company and not just the big players. So where can a company like Linden Lab get the necessary demographics about the Second Life customer base?

  • The Second Life Forums: Linden Lab hosts a full-service Forum where Residents (AKA Customers) can post questions, suggestions and comments regarding Second Life, their experience using it, their suggestions for how to improve it and anything that happens to bounce off their brains. Spend a little time reading the posts in some of the more “sane” sections and you’ll have an excellent idea what is needed and desired to improve the platform.
  • The JIRA: All bug reports, problem reports and feature suggestions are to be filed using the JIRA system. The JIRA software itself provides a number of very valuable demographic statistics including tracking the number of “Votes” and “Watches”. The relative popularity (necessity?) of a bug fix or new feature can be rapidly gauged just by looking at the Votes and Watches, but if a larger overview is needed … read the comments. Some of the Issues going stagnant on the JIRA have over 2000 votes and still go unanswered or even recognized.
  • Outside Blogs: Many (if not most) of the Second Life customers are very tech-savvy. A pretty large number of them maintain their own Blogs as well. If you want a truly unvarnished appraisal of the general sentiment regarding Second Life, just spend a few hours reading some of the more popular SL-related Blogs.
  • Land Owners and Landlords: Linden Lab makes a good amount of money every day from the ongoing and rather high-priced fees they charge to set up and maintain the computers that run each Region’s Simulator. The people paying those fees are directly in touch with the every day Resident. If you want a sense of how Second Life is doing, talk to a few Land Owners and Landlords.
  • The “Usual” Places: Every web page on every Second Life web property is equipped with visitor tracking code. Every log in to the SL Platform is logged in the User Database. Every teleport from Region to Region is logged in the database. Every Linden Dollar that changes hands is logged and tracked. Every penny paid into Linden Lab for use of Second Life and every penny cashed out from Second Life is tracked and logged. DUH!!
  • In-World Groups: While most In-World Groups are “private” and have the expectation that no Lindens will be listening in, the Groups that are intended for direct Linden interaction and feedback seldom if ever have one present. In fact it’s such a rare occurrence that when it happens it is also trumpeted on the Forums somewhere.
  • GO INTO SECOND LIFE!: I put this last because it’s such a no-brainer. Yeah, it’s a bit overwhelming sometimes, but I strongly maintain that going into Second Life is one of the most valuable experiences and sources of real intelligence that can be had. Anything “lost” (time being the only one that comes to mind) is easily offset by the valuable knowledge gained.

Final Thoughts and Conclusions

Many people, myself included, bemoan the absolutely horrid communication skills demonstrated by the management and employees of Linden Lab. Most often that complaint is raised because they don’t tell us what’s going on until the anvil lands and we’re either dead, buried or out a massive amount of money and time. But the most CRUCIAL communication skill is listening. Sadly LL is just as poor at this activity as they are at talking.

We all, every one of us Residents and Customers of Linden Lab is measured, weighed, analyzed and studied in so many ways with everything we do in Second Life. Unfortunately for us and for Linden Lab, the pipeline providing those numbers is routed directly into the sewer. If the Lab is going to continue flushing all the valuable data and statistics that they have forcibly shoved on them everyday, before long the money that flows into their paychecks will follow the same path … and go down the tubes.



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