The OpenSim front porch

The Internet is a wide, and anonymous place. For me, it’s always a slight shock when I comment on someone’s blog post — and they comment back, or send me a personal “thank you” email.  Except for these blogs, most Websites are run by anonymous Web administrators, and when I’m visiting, its from the privacy of my own desk. Tracking me down would require someone hacking into my computer, or installing cookies, or some other kind of invasive action.

When traveling the hypergrid, however (such as when doing research for our hypergrid worlds directory), I first expected to have the same kind of anonymity. Sure, grid and region managers can access server logs to see who teleported in, but who bothers to do that?

But what actually happened was different. When I traveled to new hypergrid-enabled worlds, I was frequently by local residents or the managers of those worlds. They were hanging out, or they were working on their builds, or meeting with other people, but if they had time they would say “hi,” ask me how I was doing, and offer to show me around.

Many of the regions were empty, of course — if I stopped by your office or house during a random time of the week, it would probably be empty as well (or everybody would be asleep).

But often enough to be a pleasant surprise, and especially if I visited more than once, I would meet local owners and residents.

When I visit a Website, I don’t expect to be greeted personally. If I am greeted — the way that Amazon says “Welcome back, Maria” — I know that it’s an automated response. I don’t have to say “Hi” back. If a survey pops up, I can hit “Cancel” with no hard feelings from anyone.  I get to most corporate pages and read what I want and get out.  Social media pages are different, in that I can see if my friends are on line, and chat with them if they are. They can chat back to me, as well, so I’m very careful about how I use Google Chat, Skype, Facebook, and other social media platforms. I limit the number of these platforms that I use, and screen my contacts.

With virtual worlds, these habits will have to change — and businesses that put up 3D sites for their customers and partners — will have to change along with them. Visitors will soon come to expect personal contact at the sites they visit.

Here is some advice for enterprises:

Post hours

Real-world businesses post hours on their front doors. If they don’t, the assumption is that they keep regular business hours. Customers expect to be able to talk to someone — either in person during a physical visit, or on the telephone — during these hours. If there’s noone there, the customer is disappointed, or concludes that there is something wrong at the company, or it has gone out of business.

Companies that set up virtual worlds for their customers then leave them unmanned can create the impression that the built has been abandoned, or is unfinished. Posting regular hours — even if its only open once a week — will help assuage customers that the virtual space is still alive and functioning, and may encourage them to explore further and interact with exhibits.

Staff the front desk

When teleporting in, the default landing location is right in the middle of a region, on ground level. Companies should ensure that there is a welcome area for visitors. This can be a welcome center in the form of an entire building or freestanding kiosks, a welcome desk, or even a signboard showing possible destinations. And a live, human greeter can go a long way towards making a customer feel welcome — even if the customer doesn’t interact with the staffer.

For example, people are much more comfortable going into a store where they can see a clerk and browse around, even if they leave without buying anything. If the store is empty, however, they will feel like an intruder and leave.

Just as in a physical store, a casual, “I’m here if you need anything,” is enough to put a visitor at ease and make it clear what behavior is expected of them.

To cut costs, companies can use a single human being to operate several in-world avatars, or split attention between a virtual world and other communication channels or work tasks.

Make friends

In the physical world, when a customer visits a store more than once they will develop a personal connection with the staff, maybe learn their names, engage in chit-chat. And if there’s ever a problem with a purchase or service, they will turn first to the staff member they know best.

A similar process can happen with virtual worlds. As visitors return to a particular region, then can subscribe to mailing lists or event notices, join customer groups, and “friend” individual employees. To avoid getting work-related communications when they’re off-duty, employees should have separate avatars for work and personal use.

Hold events

A public event, such as a weekly sale, or an educational program, will allow customers to interact with their peers, making them feel part of a larger community, and making the company’s virtual site look busy and popular.

If a visitor comes during an off-hour, seeing the event announcement prominently displayed in the welcome area will encourage the visitor to return, and will also help assure the visitor that the site is alive and functioning.

Maria Korolov