The image below charts Second Life "dwell" for a number of big brands' in-world experiences -- from FutureLab based on an analysis by Gary Hayes -- and tells an interesting story about what separates the winners from the others (well, it seems a bit harsh to call them losers.) Not surprisingly, the defining difference is community...
For me, it's telling to compare the top U.S. brands (Pontiac and IBM - both of whom are Digitas clients, although we were not involved with their SL strategies or builds) to their in-world competitive sets. Both put community first, and both have seemingly reaped the benefits in terms of depth of in-world engagement.
Rather than simply build out a virtual auto dealership, Pontiac chose to partner with the SL resident community and offer up free land to anyone interested in building out "car culture" in the virtual world. Their efforts have earned them nearly three times the dwell of their nearest competitor, Mercedes-Benz, who has essentially built a vehicle showroom.
IBM has used SL primarily to enable interaction among their own corporate community members (employees, customers, business partners) regardless of geographic and organizational boundaries. They've also been testing their ability to engage in-world builders and scripters through their more recently launched IBM Codestation, which serves as a forum where users can access shared resident-created chunks of code. Their dwell measure eclipses that of technology competitors Dell, Sun, Cisco and Intel (I actually couldn't find Intel in-world) -- all of whom seem more focused on using SL as a platform to promote products and services.
The take-away seems pretty clear. If you're serious about success in the virtual world, you should be thinking about how you can build relationships with -- and earn the loyalty of -- the community you hope to engage. Focus on the value you can provide in order to entice residents to voluntarily spend time with your brand.
In fact, this almost sounds like a formula for success in the real world. :-)