Growing your sim-com business

Now that we’ve got our new vendor directory ready to launch (see the test page here and give us your opinions!) we’re taking a second look at what exactly customers are looking for when they’re deciding on an OpenSim hosting platform or design vendor.

With the recent changes at Linden Lab — mass layoffs, customer service issues, Teen Grid closing, and pricing doubling for non-profits and educators — there’s been a sharp increase in interest in OpenSim. In addition, OpenSim is now comparable to Second Life in stability and features, and development is moving forward at a break-neck pace.

The key for vendors is to manage customer expectations appropriately — customers should be aware of how much performance they’re going to get with a particular system, and how they can upgrade if they need more.

Here at Hypergrid Business, we talk with a lot of customers and — in case they’re too shy to tell you themselves– here are a few things we’ve learned.

Customers are risk-averse

Even the most cutting-edge, early adopter customers doesn’t want to spend a lot of time and effort learning a new platform, only to have it go to waste. There are a lot of virtual worlds out there. They’re worried that they’ll choose the wrong one.

They’re worried that it won’t be stable enough, or too difficult for their users. They’re worried that they’ll rebuild everything, and then lose it all again.

These are all valid concerns. The vendor that addresses them most directly will get this business.

Customers are easily confused

Customers are busy people with a lot of demands on their time and attention. And even if you’re dealing with rocket scientists, you might have problems explaining the ins and outs of OpenSim. In fact, rocket scientists may be particularly busy, dealing with their rockets, and not really be paying attention.

Put things in terms they can understand, not in terms easiest for you to explain. Instead of telling a customer that they’ll get so much RAM, so much bandwidth, and so much storage, tell them how many regions they will have, and how many users can hold.

Even better is to put things in terms they can understand: Your region may be roughly equivalent to a standard Second Life region, or half as good in terms of performance, concurrence and prim counts, or twice as good. Do your own tests to find this out, or survey your existing customers to find out what their experience has been — don’t bases promises on theoretical calculations.

You can also add friendly descriptions to your offerings. For example, a region could described as a starter region, a homestead region, a low-use region, or a friends-and-family region. Next step up, you can have a moderate-use region, a moderate-traffic region, a standard region, an office region, or a studio region. Going further up, a heavy-use region, a professional region, a commercial region, a retail region, a heavy-duty region, or a high-traffic region.

Customers want what they want

Don’t tell a customer that they don’t want something. A customer who wants a cheap region wants a cheap region. A customer who wants OAR (region archive) backups wants backups. A customer who wants hypergrid, wants hypergrid. You may have your own reasons for not wanting it, but trying to convince your customers may simply turn them off. Instead, offer alternatives.

If you don’t offer what they want, refer them to another provider. Or offer them something that you do have, that might give your customers something else that they want. For example, if you don’t offer backups, refer them to a provider that does, and then add, “But you may also want a place where content is absolutely secure. You can have a backup-enabled region with someone else for your manufacturing base, then upload your content here for distribution in our closed, secure community.”

Customers want to buy

Our OpenSim hosting providers page is the single most visited page on the site, after the home page. People are ready and willing to open their wallets — all they need is a little inspiration, a little motivation, and maybe a little hand holding.

Here are some factors that might encourage them to make a buying decision faster:

Real world identity: List your real company name and address on your website. Include photographs and names of executives and customer support staff. This makes it clear that you’re a real operation, not an anonymous, fly-by-night operation. I recommend taking it up one more notch and listing your actual phone numbers. Get voice mail if you expect a lot of irate customer service calls — but having a listed phone number tells your customers that you put their needs over your privacy, and that if things go wrong, they can talk to a real human being.

Age of business: Has your company been around for two years — or two weeks? Companies that have been around longer have more experience and have reputations to maintain.

Number of hosted regions, customers: Does your company have two hundred clients — two dozen clients — or none? Most customers will opt for the vendor with the larger customer base, but some might prefer a more personal touch from a smaller operation. And some customers may be willing to take a risk and become your first client in return for a price break.

Testimonials: Do you have any happy customers? Do they let you publish their names? Then don’t keep them secret. Better yet is a quote from a customer, under their real name, with an accompanying headshot.

Graphics: Customers will often make a snap decision based on the quality of your graphics. A nice company logo, photos of staff and happy customers, and images of your products or services all help put your customers in a buying mood.

Freebies: Customers love trying things out for free — even if they will end up paying more in the long run. Some hosting vendors are offering one-month — or longer — trial periods, offering free parcels to merchants, free add-ons such as starting avatars, free consulting services, and free modules such as OMC and PayPal payment modules. Vendors can offer free a selection of free starting regions, free terrains, free buildings, and free collaboration tools. These can either be include with purchase, or available to any visitor to your website. After all, there is no cost to you to distribute this content, and you will help build traffic to your site, and increase your brand awareness.

Features: Make it easy for customers to find out if you have what they want. Some in-demand features include:

  • a secure, closed retail economy with no backups, no hypergrid
  • hypergrid
  • OAR (region archive) backups and IAR (inventory archive) backups
  • OAR and IAR uploads
  • Web-based administration panel for region restarts, backups, user management
  • groups
  • voice
  • their own, private fictional currency
  • in-grid currency
  • OMC or G$ multi-grid hypergrid-enabled currency
  • PayPal, Google Checkout or Amazon Payments modules
  • vehicles
  • integration with school or company user directories
  • private-label mini-grid
  • megaregions

Yes, some of these features conflict with other features. You can’t have a secure closed economy and have hypergrid and region backups. Take this as an opportunity to sell your customer two regions — one on a secure grid, and one on an open grid with hypergrid and backups.

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maria@hypergridbusiness.com'

Maria Korolov

Maria Korolov is editor and publisher of Hypergrid Business. She has been a journalist for more than twenty years and has worked for the Chicago Tribune, Reuters, and Computerworld and has reported from over a dozen countries, including Russia and China.

  • Sean —

    I might put an intern on that. The tricky part, of course, is that such a features grid would change weekly — no, daily! Vendors are constantly adding new features, changing their pricing… we go through every month or so to make sure that our prices are still accurate, and that the vendors are still around, but it's much harder to find out whether they've got new features — vendors don't post this stuff anywhere obvious, and it can take weeks — or months — for us to get a response from them. After all, they'd rather spend them time dealing with actual paying customers — especially these days, with the influx of educators and non-profits from Second Life.

    In fact, this is usually the kind of work that analysts do, and they charge for their report. If there's a virtual worlds analyst firm reading this, we'll be glad to help you market your reports to our readers, by running press releases, etc… It would be a valuable service.

    – Maria

  • This is the last time I will suggest this, as I’ve already suggested it twice with no response. 🙂

    An opensim host features grid would make the decision to jump into opensim much easier and less confusing for a lot of people, in my opinion. The dizzying array of options from various vendors is just overwhelming.

    Yes, it will be a lot of work, especially initially, but think of the hits. And the ad revenue. 🙂

    You already have starter list of headings in the post. 🙂

  • I thought about the change problem, and I think the trick would be to keep it simple and stick mainly with features that aren’t likely to change – like grid description, do they do OAR backups etc. – and a few critical features that change – like pricing – and leave all the less critical features out.

    Initially you could populate it with what you already know, rather than go hunting up any new data, and you can leave the unknown fields blank and then this would be an incentive to vendors to submit the missing info.

    If it became the go-to place to get this information – as your vendor list is now – surely it would be in the vendors’ best interests to keep submitting up-to-date information. It would look bad for them if a potential client turned up only on their website or grid only to find out the info was out of date.

    You could provide a disclaimer pointing out that it’s vendor-provided info and it’s their responsibility to keep it updated.

    I appreciate how much work this could be, it just seems to me to be something that could make a huge difference to supporting the growth of the opensim metaverse.