"How do I make money?"

Gwyneth Llewelyn in Colonia NovaLet’s face it: we all were newbies once. While some of us might have immediately plunged into a creative spree like never before, and just remembered after two months that our avatar was in its newbie clothes that they started with, this is hardly the case of the majority of new users…

Sooner or later β€” often sooner! β€” a new user will know that they need money. Well, my explanation is that they might have read magazine ads telling them how successful business loans was. They might have browsed through blogs and forums, catching numbers here and there, on how much money is being transacted in SL, and how some content creators and live music performers make a living here. They might even have come to a conference or two at the Beta Business Park and listened to people talking about their business experience in SL. Or they just looked up on the top of the screen where it says “L$0” and wondered how to get more.

No matter what the reason was, usually rather early in the process of getting acquainted with Second Life, one of the very, very first questions asked is how to make money in SL (often seconded by “will you give me some L$?”). Unless, of course, you just came in for the dating πŸ™‚

Traditionally, the usual answer you give to an intelligent new user is that it’s “as hard as to make money in the real world”, and follow that up with a comparison with making money from Web design. Some helpers just take the trouble to describe what you can create, from buildings to clothes, from scripting to animations, and patiently explain how you develop a brand in SL, make it a successful, and retire on a Caribbean island (even a virtual one!).

The casual user, however, is not interested in how to make money that way. They want to make money fast. They know they’re unskilled, so they hardly expect to become the next super-architect or boots designer in SL, but they still want money. Quickly. Painlessly. Without an effort.

At this point, most helpers just shake their heads and sigh.

Making money in SL’s remote past

A few years ago, it was far easier to “make money fast”. All you needed was a Basic account and to log in for a few minutes: you’d get L$50 every week that way. If you wanted a bit more, you could just join one of the hundreds of daily contests that were sponsored by Linden Lab, and they would give you, say, L$500 β€” if you won. But you could always participate on a different contest.

The economy ceased to be subsidised several years ago, and thus making money fast became far less easy. Gambling in Second Life, outlawed in August 2007 (except for the immensely popular Zyngo, that Aargle Zymurgy for mysterious reasons is still allowed to run), used to be a major way to make money β€” or, more likely, lose it very quickly. Unless, of course, you set up your own casino πŸ™‚ The politically-correctly named “escort service” was another way to get some money at the very beginning, and with luck, your “sponsor” would possibly pay for your initial set of clothes and an “appropriate” Animation Overrider. But besides that, making money didn’t seem to be very easy…

Enter camping. In the past, Linden Lab would pay land owners for the ability to drive traffic to their locations. The very naive concept behind this was simply that “cool places” would be popular, thus making residents happy, and this should be rewarded with a financial incentive in the form of a lower monthly tier payment. Thus, land owners quickly found out that they could set up chairs on their location that would pay any resident sitting on it a small fee per minute (or per hour) β€” artificially driving up their traffic, and ensuring a higher return on the monthly “incentive payments”. Camping chairs were born, and some of those were quite ingenious, like the “camping dance poles”, where attractive avatars would just sit inside a “dating parlour” and let their avatar be animated with sexy poses or dances. My favourite ones were animations cleaning building faΓ§ades or lawn mowing πŸ™‚

Linden Lab then removed the financial incentives for higher traffic. For a while, the impact of this measure was not unduly felt, since higher traffic still meant higher ranking on the internal search engine, and camping chairs were still useful for that. But then “camping bots” were invented β€” they would be much cheaper to maintain and guaranteed to attract an artificial crowd that could be “sitting” for any amount of time desired. Bots became the bane of Second Life, since they are so easy to setup, require almost zero maintenance, never leave their place, and naturally enough, do not require any payment. Camping chairs for human avatars became less popular.

Of course, the next predictable step by Linden Lab was to consider any measures to artificially increase traffic to a location illegal β€” specifically, camping bots, but also camping chairs or their more exquisite alternatives β€” and even go so far as to require users to flag their avatars as bots or humans. Using any of those systems became a bannable offense, and for a while, the reduction of the number of simultaneous users by 15-20% was attributed to the removal of dozens of thousands of bots grid-wide. They’re not all gone, since LL is unable to catch them all. And, since high traffic still gives an advantage on the search engine ranking, some locations continue to have variants of camping chairs for humans: in some cases, avatars actually have to stand up and walk a bit around the place to ensure that, if the land owner is reported, they can prove that their campers are not just sitting in the same place for hours and hours.

No matter how successful those techniques were (or still are), the point is that paying people to simply come to your place have become less popular. Without gambling variants, you wouldn’t be able to provide entertainment that would give L$ to unskilled people β€” and skill games are far less attractive than unskilled ones (for a new user). The notion of just paying people to sit on a bench and stay there disappeared. So there were no more easy ways to make money in Second Life.

The new generation of money-making schemes

In the real world, there are a lot of methods for unskilled people to make money β€” not much money, but at least something that is worth the time spent. Possibly the oldest of those methods comes from market analysis: it’s popular to give a small gift if you fill up a form or reply to an interview regarding a product’s perceived brand awareness. It’s just to thank you for your time. Lots of sites actually list events and things that give out free gifts or even some money in return for your time; some people spend all their (real world) time just looking for those β€” which can quickly turn into a full-time job! β€” and do little else besides searching for “free money” or “free gifts”.

But I still think that the best model is something automated… like Google AdSense. Google turned the common user into a billboard for advertising services β€” not a novel idea, but they definitely do it massively. The idea is simple: you’re already driving traffic to your website. Ad sponsors want that traffic. Google acts as the middleman putting both in touch and charges a percentage (how much, we don’t know; but it definitely accounts for billions of US$ in annual income for Google!). Anyone can set up a website in minutes and place a Google Ad on it, and immediately start making a few cents. Work harder to get more traffic, and Google pays you more. It’s simple to setup, simple to understand β€” although very hard to make a living of it (my other blog barely pays for the annual hosting expenses with the income I get from the ads!).

The whole idea is, however, easy to understand, and a few variations are naturally possible. Market analysis, for instance, can send you a gift if you fill up an online form β€” a gift which could be, say, a Google AdSense voucher, or a voucher for Amazon.com or eBay. In the not-so-distant past, people were paid to click on links, just to drive traffic to websites. Charities very often have links where you can click, and they’ll send some money to feed people all over the world, for example. The notion that a micropayment is more than adequate for people to do very simple tasks online is quite popular, and many variations exist.

Needless to say, clever Second Life entrepreneurs have figured that they could do the same. Billboards in Second Life never catched on, except perhaps on the mainland, since hiring spots to place ads was too expensive for the little traffic they guaranteed (if you had a spot already with a lot of traffic, why bother with placing a board there?)Β Metrics were also inadequately supplied. The same problem exists with billboards in real life, too: if you have a board on a location that is “seen by 100,000 people every day”, how many of those did actually buy your product? Unless you have a way to measure the return, this is usually dealt with heuristics β€” and some follow-up questionnaires.

Second Life, however, allows for something much cleverer: interactive billboards. A sign on the board can invite the user to click on it, and when the avatar does so, they could typically receive a landmark and/or a notecard, but also a tiny monetary incentive β€” say, L$1. The land owner setting up the billboard might get another L$1 (think of it as “rent”). And the advertiser would pay L$3/click.

Several variations on the theme exist. SLBiz2Life is a typical example of an operator providing those kinds of services, one of them called “Ad-Fusion Network” which is just a system like the one described.

Clicking on ads inside SL might be the most basic way of getting some awareness, but there are more alternatives. Shop owners have long since created groups to promote their products: join the group, and you get some free items once in a while; Fashion Consolidated offers a “meta-group” where thousands of content creators routinely make their announcements and send their freebies to dozens of thousands of eager residents; kiosks on the designers’ shops allow people to automatically register to the group.Β Subscribe-o-Matic is one of the most popular automated systems to do the same thing that doesn’t even require people to join any SL group; Jacek Antonelli’s Deliverator is a similar tool. An alternative to attracting people to your shop is just to set up a device that gives free gifts:Β Lucky Chairs are a popular method of doing so. The disadvantage of those tools is that you have to know beforehand where to go to get some free items (or free L$ to spend on a shop).

More innovative solutions exist. For instance, you can get paid to list a shop on your picks list. Variations, like paying you for joining a group, or list an URL or something on your profile, also exist. These days, as it’s easy to retrieve information from within SL, almost anything on your profile can be scanned and validated to see if you’re still being a good, walking ad β€” and if so, some L$ love will be sent your way!

What about finding new places to visit, where content merchants with their ready vendors anxiously await new customers? The above methods most rely on people finding locations first, and then joining a group (or tweaking their profiles) to get some L$ or freebies. ConeNet from Bletaverse works from the reverse approach. You can think of it as an evolutionary approach to the old camping chairs. Instead of a chair, however, you place a special Traffic Cone on your shop. You pay a certain amount to it. Now everybody that finds a Cone somewhere on the grid can click to teleport to a random location; if they arrive at yours, you’ll get debited L$2 which will go to the visitor, and an additional L$2 to ConeNet. Visitors to your location have to stay in the same area for 11 minutes to get some payment β€” this will obviously increase traffic, so even if they don’t buy anything, you’ll at least get a bit more traffic for your rankings. The system is quite democratic: it doesn’t matter if you invest a lot or little, you’ll still get visitors randomly allocated to your place (I’ve tried it out on my always-empty and never-visited shop in Io and got 20 or so visits in 24 hours). You can also control your campaign very carefully: no money will be debited from your account beyond what you’ve initially set up. Some cleverly simple anti-bot measures are in place to prevent bots to use the system and deplete your L$ account. An alternative, which is HUD-based and gives higher payouts (but also requires advertisers to spend more), is Pay4Visit from Earn2Life.

More complex systems exist. Knowing that people have little patience to travel around in search for new items β€” specially free or very cheap ones β€” companies like Robbie Kiama’s metaLife offer a full range of devices to facilitate capturing visitors to your location or sell them items. These involve HUDs and in-world kiosks; they add social networking and a way for people to tell friends what interesting things they found. Of course, reading Fabulously Free in Second Life is an alternative πŸ™‚

If all else fails, well, there is no other option but to get a job. SL Job Finder from Indusgeeks is probably the longest-running job advertisement website for Second Life; another option would be the jobs page on SL profiles. However, don’t expect much from these sites: word-of-mouth is still the best way to find reputable, skilled workers in Second Life.

Last but not least, you can always search for the myriad sites out there offering L$ payment services in exchange for some kind of advertising or marketing campaign.

In conclusion: yes, you can make money in L$ without being skilled. All it takes is some time Β to watch some ads. πŸ™‚