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How Linden Lab screws their fan community

If you look out into the world of new marketing these days you might see one thing you shouldn’t do and this is what Linden Lab recently did. With this change they are moving away from being a modern company which understand how to do marketing these days to one of the more old school ones which most likely will have to rethink their marketing strategy in the future.

So what has happened?

Back in the days Linden Lab was promoting their Second Life fansite toolkit alond with guidelines on how you use the logos and their names on your own sites. It was a quite relaxed policy which helped quite a lot in spreading the word about Second Life.
But not anymore. On March 24th Linden Lab announced their new policy which since then raised a lot of uproar and confusion inside the Second Life community. Basically it disallows a lot of uses of the Second Life name (and the SL abbreviation as well as they registered it as a trademark now, too), forcing quite a lot of initiatives, communities, businesses etc. to change their name. If you don’t comply you might even be banned from Second Life because this new policy is now weaved into the Terms of Service.

This means that a lot of sites with „sl“ in their domain names have to change their name within 90 days and that’s not a little amount of sites and neither are they unpopular. For them it will be a big change and lots of work.

Oh, and why did they do this: in order to control their message better, to not dilute it.

So what’s the problem with this?

I see two main problems here. The first the general question of how you do marketing these days. There is no „control“ of your message anymore these days. People write about you what they want and the message is what Google delivers. So you’d better make a good job in keeping your customers happy than trying to „control“ your message. In the case of Linden Lab they had very well working word-of-mouth, crowdsources marketing activities in place. Every community site, every blog, even every in-world business site was a marketing output for Linden Lab promoting what you can do with Second Life.

Now even the trust in Linden Lab might have been lost a little bit more. First because they communicated these changes very poorly (like there is no explanation or even discussion on the „why“) and people of course trusted the fansite policy, promoting their own thing but also Second Life with it and now are confronted with that severe change, forcing them to rename themselves, promote a new name and so on. So in fact not only trust is lost but also time and maybe even money to promote a name.

The other problem I see is more ethical and maybe Second Life-specific. The main question here is: „Who created that message?“. Was it Linden Lab or the residents? I would say the latter has more done to form the message. And Linden Lab profited from it. They profited from a growing world (thus more land to rent) and they profited from growing media attention. So all in all it was a win-win situation. Linden Lab seemed even proud of the fact that nearly 100% of the content and activities in Second Life has been contributed by their residents. Now is such a change fair then? Who does „own“ the name „Second Life“ from a more moral viewpoint? Is it really Linden Lab or is it not everybody involved in this? I would say the latter.

And does it make sense to alienate your loyal residents just now? Does Linden Lab think they don’t need that kind of marketing anymore because they can do better? Is Second Life now big enough so that it will run itself? I doubt it. I think Linden Lab needs this kind of promotion right now. The competition gets harded, lots of virtual worlds are in the making or even on the market. Linden Lab needs every helping hand they can!

What to do now?

With that change in policy IMHO Linden Lab is giving away a huge opportunity in crowdsourced marketing. Many other companies would be very happy to have something like that in place. But having something like that in place of course also needs a fitting TM policy. If you don’t have that then you have a problem.

It’s maybe also trademark law in general which produces all these problems as you have to defend your trademark or you lose it. My question would be now what actually happens if you lose it. Can others use it? Can you prevent others from using it then because apparently you use it for much longer?

And what can we do to make Linden Lab reconsider? Some bloggers go on strike but I wonder how much attention you actually get by that? I guess not that much. They also mostly want to get the ban out of the TOS and they might want some grandfathering of old sites. To me that’s not enough though to care about a strike. It will not solve the main problem. Linden Lab really needs to bring (maybe a slightly changed version) the fansite policy back.

For me it means to work more on the AWG project which’s aim it is to create an open protocol for virtual worlds. The sooner this is finished the sooner Linden Lab is not needed anymore. I am not saying that they are not doing a great job but then you have choice. The alternatives might be worse but with an open grid („grid“ is a word they also want to register btw) anybody can go out there and try to do it better.

General conclusion

So if you are a company who thinks about getting into the realm of social media, letting go of all that control (which you don’t have anyway) and also let the customers speak for you, you should make sure they are allowed to do so. You should make sure you are not going to sue your customers after they did marketing for you. You need to make sure you keep them happy so that it’s not at some point going against you! Do this and you will be fine. Do what Linden Lab just did and you will be screwed.

And of course: Communicate!

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