My employers' website has been IM enabled for quite some time. You can chat with one of the CEO's, the commercial director, sales people and the front office desk (the reception), if they are online. This means that we offer an element of synchronous communication in a generally asynchronous environment, the 2D world wide web.
Recently, I asked my colleagues what their experiences with being online on the website are. It seems that while there is a lot of useless chatter, and even, incidentally, some harassment towards the sales ladies, there are also useful contacts. In some cases, these have resulted in actual sales, but not much. But, as it has been very positive for our image in the marketplace as an innovative company (there are not many CEO's online like ours), it's still a positive experience.
From asynchronous to synchronous, from 1-1 to 1-many
Written communications seem to move from asynchronous to synchronous at an ever higher pace. In the business environment, we moved from paper and snailmail, via email, to instant messaging in a couple of decades. There is another shift under way: from 'one to one' communications, to 'one to many'; from a personal letter, to a phone call, to group email, to online meetings, blogs and more recently applications like Twitter, which can be used to tell the whole world what you're doing in "140 characters or less". Broadcasting one's thoughts or opinions is easier than ever.
The 3D fit
In my opinion, the advent of 3D environments fits in with these developments. The 3D environment begs for synchronicity, as it were. I have spent quite some time in Second Life; the most rewarding and useful hours have been, those, where I interacted with other people. IBM briefings and meetings, blogger meetings, the people you meet incidentally at sites of mutual interest: these encounters offer something that's not easily repeatable in the 2D world wide web. Chat rooms and online meeting rooms may offer the same basic functionality (communicate with n people at the same moment), yet it cannot be compared with a 3D immersive experience. Viewed like this, environments like Second Life really belong in the "social software" world.
IBM virtual business office
IBM seems to be aware of this. They have had a Virtual Business center in SL for a few months now, which is being staffed by RL people. I have been over there for a couple of times, and twice there was someone there, indeed; unfortunately, both times these avatars were 'away'. Apparently, it's possible to summon them back to life by pressing a nearby button, but I have not attempted that, not having a real need to buy something from IBM at the time :-)
But it does point out an interesting difference between "being online on a website" and "being online in Second Life". For my colleagues who are supposed to be online on our website, no extra effort or time is required. When they logon to our internal IM infrastructure, they are automatically online on the website, as well. They can continue to work, without having to spend time or effort on "being online". There's almost no visible cost, but it brings positive PR (the CEO is online, which keeps surprising people) and even some sales.
What if we would require them to be online on a Second Life site? This would definitely require more time and more energy, and would result in far more visible direct costs. The return on investment would have to be substantially, in order to justify these costs. I don't see that happening anytime soon, not on the scale and size of companies like the one I work for.
At this time, I think the best way to make use of the synchronous communication advantage of a 3D environment, is by concentrating the in world presence. For instance, be there at published, fixed hours, like the recruiters of a bank I am aware of. Or, have targeted meetings for your (prospective) customers at, again, published, fixed hours. One other bank has investors' meetings every two weeks at thursday night, chaired by someone on the CxO level; they are actively trying to foster a community around these meetings.
Early Adopters mistake..
During the Second Life boomlet at the end of 2006, early 2007, many a company built an in world presence, only to be disappointed later on when almost no one came to visit them. Perhaps, some of these companies jumped the SL bandwagon without really thinking about what the differences between 2D and 3D presences are. Static content and asynchronous communication is fine on a 2D website, and for many purposes it's perhaps the best medium. But a 3D environment like Second Life asks for synchronicity, community and activities. Now there's a couple of buzz words to think about!