PHILIPS_Logo My work with the TheSocialMediaBible.com takes me into interesting places and gives me lots of new and innovative ways to opportunity to experience various social media technologies.  I also look for opportunities to explore the newest stuff I can lay my hands on.

Last week I was a participant in a focus group that was asked to evaluate a product concept that a manufacturer is considering launching into the retail space.  They had recruited a global panel of about a dozen of us from all walks of life.  In the session, we were asked to take a look at a series of applications for this new concept, play with the controls and experience how the technology they are developing might be perceived.

The remarkable aspect of this experience was the extensive use of social media technology that was applied to the process to accomplish the goal.

The company was Koninklijke Philips Electronics N.V. (Koninklijke is the Dutch word for ‘Royal’), based in Eindhoven, the Netherlands.  The project lead I met was Dolf Wittkamper.  It all began when he posted a notice on LinkedIn and asked if anyone would be interested in participating in a concept evaluation using another social media, the 3D social platform called ‘Second Life‘.  I have a history and a background in Second Life, so I applied and was accepted.

I cannot speak about the concepts they presented, but I can talk about the process – which is what I found to be relevant to social media.  The session followed pretty much the same process I’ve seen in a similar real life situation.  Have a panel come into a room, show them a concept or idea, support them and answer questions while they experience the concept ad then usher them into another room and explore their perceptions around a conference table.

Commerical roundtable in SL_001 Except the panel was logged into the 3D platform from all over the world, mostly from the US.  This was a brilliant application of social media technology, albeit somewhat advanced / geeky for the average user because of the 3D platform being employed.

Why This Is Important – Businesses everywhere will have to continue to innovate and promote products to a global audience.  Using social media technologies to connect with the audience and a rich-media environment to present concepts in bits and pixels even before they can be built out of glass and steel will allow a much lower cost, iterative process than could otherwise ever be achieved.  Products can be built better and quicker at a lower cost.  How much lower?

ROI on the Concept Development Process – I’m not an engineering guy, so I’m not sure what it’d would run to physically produce prototype products for concept evaluation (a lot, I’d bet) but from a marketing perspective I did a quick calculation of just the cost to get a global focus group together using 70-80% US participants at a the HQ location for Philips.  This is not a precise calculation, but you’ll get the idea here. 

Lets look at conventional means to just GET us to the HQ for a focus group, they would have had to pay for airfare, rooms and set aside a portion of their facility to host us.  The company is based in the Netherlands, airfare to Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport is about $1,800USD business class and rooms are $190USD. Train fare from the airport is about 50 Euros, so add $75 per person round trip.  Add food, $35USD per diem, and one person to attend from the US for two days = $2,325USD.  In my session there were 10 of us from the US and two from overseas, one from the UK and one from Switzerland.  The US participation would have been at least $23,250 and they held I think four of these sessions.  If there was a similar mix, the costs could easily rise to $100,000 USD / 75,000 Euros.

2ndlife_vert_2color_sm What did the build cost in SL?  Well, you can get a private island to do what ever you want for about $1,000 and a monthly fee of about $150.  Philips has a few islands, and we did not use the whole place, but even if we did, it would be around $7.70 USD for the facility.  The staff would be additional of course to run the event.  It might have taken a few days of staff time to set up the virtual environment – Dolf seems pretty sharp. 

In another case study I came across, IBM reported saving $320K on a single conference they opted to hold Second Life instead of a usual real life venue.

Will We See More of 3D Social Platform?  I think so.  There are more than a few thoughts that have me believing this; 1) it’s an immersing, rich media experience – something consumers enjoy, 2) Linden Labs (the people behind Second Life) are moving to rein in adult content, a rampant factor many companies have had a little heartburn accepting in the past, 3) initiatives like OpenSim, a similar, private platform that people are working on to connect to the public Second Life platform that will give companies even more control over the consumer experience. 

There are even more factors at work, but these are the important ones I see that will drive even more 3D experiences for users.

Verdict – Evaluate the 3D social platform for yourself.  Initially, it’s a real time vampire, but after you get your bearings, it is a powerful, informative and sometime fun platform to connect with others.  I’ve seen Coldwell Banker do a replication in Second Life of a luxury home being sold in real life and brands like IBM, Kraft Foods, Nike, Adidas, American Cancer Society, Nissan and now Philips use the environment to connect to consumers. 

Might work for you too.

Updated: I misspelled Dolfs last name, cleaned up some of the writing in the ROI section and a provided a link to the Virtual Worlds blog article on the IBM savings.  Apologies to Dolf and thanks for the catch.