A three-year plan — and then some

I occasionally hear frustration from OpenSim vendors and their early-adopter customers that mainstream users aren’t getting OpenSim, that they aren’t aware of the benefits OpenSim offers compared, to, say, Second Life or other virtual world platforms — or compared to Web-based conferencing or face-to-face meetings.

Many formed their opinion of OpenSim a year ago, when it was buggy and unstable. Or they may have visited a couple of overburdened grids running older versions of the software and assumed that this was true everywhere.

Yes, there are some truly bleeding edge folks who’ve been in OpenSim for a year or two, but when I say “bleeding edge” here, I mean that literally. Running OpenSim used to require a tremendous amount of patience, suffering, and technical skills. Today, however, there are a number of vendors who take all the pain out of OpenSim and offer easy, turnkey, private grid solutions that are quick and painless to set up, with no technical skills required.

In fact, some of the enterprises deploying OpenSim tell me that they’re getting better performance and stability than with their Second Life regions. They key is having a good hosting provider, and making sure you’ve got enough speed and memory on your server.

OpenSim is current missing two key features — a decent in-world voice system, and the more complex vehicle physics scripting commands. The latter is less of an issue for educators and enterprises. And high-quality voice is under way with the Whisper-Mumble combo, currently being tested on OSGrid.

But at the end of the day, the users aren’t to blame for not learning all they can about OpenSim. OpenSim is complicated, and just one of dozens of platforms. And the developers and vendors aren’t to blame, either. They’re doing the best they can getting the word about what OpenSim offers.

The holdup is basic business psychology, and the technology adoption cycle.

There are three phases of technology adoption, and we’re just entering the first.

The pilot project phase

In the pilot project phase, early adopters find a new platform and start experimenting with it. They might do a small proof of concept install, or use it for a small-scale event.

It takes about a year for a new technology to be found, learned, and piloted.

At the conclusion of this pilot phase, early adopters and evangelists approach their managers and attempt to talk them into deploying OpenSim for a real project.

If they get approval, then OpenSim enters the deployment phase.

The deployment phase

In this phase, the early adopters get money and support and roll out OpenSim to a wider number of employees, students, or events.

They collect feedback from users, and learn what works and what doesn’t work.

At the end of this phase, those who have been successful with their deployment may talk about their experience publicly, at conferences and industry events, or through media interviews. They may also get written up by their vendors in case studies and whitepapers.

At this point, some satisfied customers — often in return for a price break or other benefit – will agree to talk to other potential clients about their experience with the vendor or the technology.

The adoption phase

In this phase, the average enterprise will take a look at what the early adopters and pioneers were able to accomplish.  If the results are good enough to overcome the significant pain and risk of learning a new platform, they might embark on their own small-scale pilot projects.

It is at the end of this phase — three years from now — that the mass of business and education users will seriously start to consider OpenSim.

Does this mean that vendors should pack up their bags and come back in three years?

No, because that will give the competition the opportunity to snap up the pioneers and the early adopters, get all the good case studies and testimonials. And when the masses are ready to come calling, it’s the guys who already have the good reputation in this sector who’ll be getting their business.

Advice to vendors and evangelists

The rule of thumb in sales is that it takes six points of contact before a buyer is ready to make a purchase decision. Ideally, these points of contact will be of different types — an article in the newspaper, a personal recommendation from a friend, an eye-catching advertisement, an interesting post on the vendor’s blog, a presentation at a conference, an online video.

Hearing the same vendor or technology mentioned in different contexts makes a potential buyer more comfortable with the product. And the familiarity builds on itself. Someone who has heard a friend talk about OpenSim is more likely to open an article about OpenSim, or be more attentive to an advertisement.

Get the word out: Expect to take at least six months to build brand recognition in your chosen market. Use advertising, social media, news articles and press releases. Attend events. Donate space and support to worthy causes in return for mention of your product and service. After six months, revisit your strategy. You may need to add new marketing channels, or drop ones that don’t work. Don’t forget to ask new clients how they heard about your services, and act on that information. If all your new clients are referred by one satisfied customer, reward that customer with a discount, extra services, or public recognition.

Get testimonials: The best time to get a testimonial from a customer is when they’re particularly pleased with something. Use the testimonial in a white paper, case study, a quote in a press release, or simply as a blurb on your website. Remember to get the customer’s real name, title, and company name, and, if possible, an actual photograph. People believe real people, especially if there’s a headshot attached to the quote. Avatars are much less credible, especially to business users who are new to virtual worlds. Anonymous, unsigned testimonials are the least credible of all. You can also ask for testimonials when first signing a contract or at renewal. Offer a discounted rate or additional support or content in return for the testimonial, if you need to. Nobody cares if you think your service is the best. But if their peers are saying that your service is the best — that matters.

Benchmark: Benchmarking is expensive — and risky, if you don’t come out near the top. But it’s a great way to build your credibility as a service provider. Hire an independent analyst firm to do the study, if you can afford it. If you can’t, run your own benchmark tests and publicize the results. For extra credibility, be as open as  possible about your benchmarking process, and offer your competitors the opportunity to review the results (in case you caught them on a bad day). If you do, there will be less animosity about the results from your competitors who do badly. And if they do disagree, they will be more likely to run their own benchmark tests rather than dismiss yours out of hand — drawing more attention and publicity to the issue.

Refer: Don’t be afraid to recommend your competitors when appropriate. If a client can’t afford your services, refer them to a less costly competitor. They’ll remember you when it comes time for them to upgrade. If a client is looking for something more than what you can provide, don’t take on the project and mess it up — refer it to someone with experience in that particular area, or partner up with an expert. And, of course, always be ready to refer clients to companies who provide related content or services. Develop good relationships with these other firms — what goes around, comes around. Your competitors will be much less likely to bad-mouth you in public if you’ve sent business your way. And they will be much more likely to refer customers to you when they can’t meet their particular needs. It doesn’t cost you anything to refer business out that you wouldn’t have gotten anyway. And the benefits will continue to accumulate for a long, long time.

Contribute code: If you fix a bug in OpenSim, or create a useful new feature, donate it to the community. You don’t have to donate it right away, but if you wait too long, the open source community will create its own version and sideline yours, making your work irrelevant. You would also lose the opportunity to get some positive press for your company. You want users to think of you each time they use a favorite feature — you can’t pay for that kind of publicity. And don’t be afraid to use your contributions in your marketing. Knowing that you contributed useful code will make potential customers respect your expertise more. An additional benefit is that it might inspire your competitors to do the same, which will improve the OpenSim platform overall. And then everyone benefits.

Don’t be afraid of bad publicity: For a marketing-savvy firm, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. If something goes particularly badly with a customer, use this as an opportunity to improve your services, and talk openly about your improvements. And don’t be afraid to bend over backwards to make things right. Offering a rebate, a discount, free services for a length of time — these all help build positive feelings about your company. Every company makes some mistakes. No customer expects every vendor relationship to go perfectly smoothly. But if you publicly take on the responsibility, and make corrective actions, other prospective customers will be comforted knowing that if things go badly — when things go badly — you will deal with them well.

Don’t blame: It’s not the users’ fault if they’re having problems with your service. Use this as an opportunity to improve your product — and gain an edge over the competition. It’s not OpenSim’s fault if there’s a problem with the software. Use that as an opportunity to fix it, and gain some expertise — and street cred. Don’t blame your server hosting company for hardware problems, take ownership of them. If you try to pass the blame, your customers will feel that you’re not in control of the situation. By not playing the blame game, you’ll position yourself head and shoulders above your competitors, and a positive attitude is always more appealing to clients. If you naturally tend to find fault with everything, get someone else to be the public face of your company.

The development of OpenSim offers a rare opportunity for startup companies to go out and create entirely new business markets. The hypergrid will need its own Amazon. Its own eBay. Its own Google. Its own Yahoo. Its own GeoCities and Blogger and WordPress. And things that we can’t even imagine yet. This sector isn’t yet saturated with well-funded competitors. The field is wide open.

For the next three years, we will have one of the few opportunities to create something truly new. By the time the big guys get wind of what’s going on, they’ll be late to the game, they’ll be three years behind, they won’t have the skills and connections and beta customers that you have. So they will try to buy their way in. You can sell out, pocket your millions, and go off and start a new company. Or stick with it and grow it big. Or simply continue to occupy a small and profitable niche.

There will be another bubble — there always is, with new technologies, with massive over-investment and hype. By starting early, you can be the beneficiary of the hype and over-investment, not the victim.

Then the hype will die down, the bubble will burst, and the technologies that now seem risky and experimental will become just another normal part of doing business.

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