As head of 3D experience at ABN Amro, Popke Rein Munniksma is experimenting with virtual worlds as an opportunity to promote the bank’s brand and cut the costs of internal meetings.

Here, we ask him about ABN Amro’s virtual world investments beyond the much-maligned Second Life, the challenges of gaining internal acceptance within his organisation and how he sees 3G technology being used within the firm’s existing websites.

What is your role?

I’m the head of 3D experience, and my job is to get the organisation ready for the new phenomenon of virtual worlds. I’m looking into the business opportunities for ABN Amro and how we could exploit them in the short and long term.

What opportunities are you looking into?

When speaking to my colleagues, I try to divide the opportunities into two parts – internal and external.

Internally, you can use virtual worlds to organise meetings, as well as for internal communications, training and simulation purposes. These are the main applications. At this time, we are mostly looking into virtual meetings – how you can use virtual worlds as a substitute for conference calls and business meetings. The business case is obvious – the travel costs and the time you spend in traffic jams.

We are currently looking into which virtual world tools are best suited for internal usage. We are piloting a virtual world application called Active Worlds. Compared to Second Life, it requires a lot less power from your desktop computers and puts less of a strain on your infrastructure.

It is suitable for the desktop computers we have installed at ABN Amro, which can’t handle Second Life.

What advice do you have for marketers that are looking at virtual worlds?

One of the most important things is to get a good level of back-up from senior management and get them involved.

Also, when you are going through the experimentation period, don’t try to incorporate it within your normal business as that will only slow you down. Treat it as an innovative project outside of your normal business. Until recently, I was directly connected to the managing board of ABN Amro in the Netherlands. I was recently incorporated into day-to-day business activity.

Also, you can read a thousand books about virtual worlds but you really have to experience them yourself to find out the style of communication and what the future problems will be.

What does the future hold for Second Life?

It’s difficult to say. There are two major things that influence the adoption of new technology – ease of use and added value. Ease-of-use is one of the downsides of Second Life. The learning curve is too long for our clients to get familiar with it.

As a virtual world enthusiast, I think Second Life is the pinnacle of virtual world development. But it is only for a small group. Eventually, Second Life or something like it will gain a large market share, but maybe in five to eight years.

For external, marketing purposes, we are looking at other virtual worlds that are less sophisticated than Second Life, and are therefore easier to use for the public and easier to integrate with existing services on our website. How can we get into real interaction with our clients? We have pushed people very effectively to the internet but we need opportunities to cross and up-sell.

What has held back Second Life as a sales and marketing channel for banks?

We hoped to get there but due to very strict regulations, it wasn’t possible for us to sell products on Second Life. You have to identify your customers for who they are, and as you know, avatars are anonymous.

There are various techniques that we use with our secure 2D webpages, but at that time they were run on the servers of Linden Lab [the creators of Second Life]. That was an issue for confidentiality as we couldn’t have been sure that no one was listening if we had held secure conversations with customers.

As a result, we used Second Life as a learning experience about the dynamics of virtual world communities, what customers want, what they think of us as a bank and what they expect of us in the future.

I read recently that you had sold off a lot of your Second Life properties. Is that right?

Yes, that’s right but we are still in Second Life. In 2006, when we started, we were very confident it would take off, so we bought in quite large with several islands.

During 2007, we found that although it had been a great experience for us, the legislation and compliance issues had limited what we could do. So we had to rethink our plans. We are still learning a lot but we don’t need so many islands.

When do you think you will be able to sell products via virtual worlds?

Certainly not in 2008. I am working on plans now which, if everything goes well, should allow us to have a virtual application up and running in 2009. It’s a question of getting the right security and confidentiality to sell products and go into personal financial advice. But I am not saying we will do that in 2009, just to make that clear.

Where do you feel 3D technology could be effectively deployed within brands’ existing 2D websites?

There are two major things that I am focusing on right now – integrating 3D technology with the normal 2D web and getting 3D to mobile devices. I’m not sure what I can say about what we are planning, but we are looking into those things.

Is there a business case now for 3D technology within online customer service?

There’s a golden business case. There is a lot of traffic on but the site is only transaction-based. So we want to find a way to talk to visitors to the website. Not everyone will share this vision but it makes sense to talk to customers where they are, before relaying them to other channels such as contact centres.

Popke Rein will be presenting at the Virtual Worlds Forum Europe in London between October 6 and 8.