“What has never been doubted, has never been proven.”- DiderotI think of this quotation often these days when reading the frequent broadsides against virtual worlds, the departures of major corporations from Second Life, and stories questioning the value derived by corporations such as Cisco and IBM in the virtual world.Although I cannot speak for other companies, it is easy enough to quantify the value that Cisco derives from our interactions with our customers and partners on our Virtual Campus in Second Life. (If any of our customers or partners wish to comment about the value, or lack of, they receive, I’ll be happy to contact them and create a follow-up post as a complement to this one.)To further quote the late quality guru Dr. W. Edwards Deming, and probably the antithesis of Denis Diderot, “In God we trust….all others bring data.” Here’s the data:1) Customer ContactIn the last year, we’ve had tens of thousands of customers visit our virtual campus to participate in roundtables, Tech Talks, training, executive briefings, focus groups, press conferences, product launches, and the list goes on. ‘Frequent Customer Contact’ is our corporate mantra at Cisco, and any mechanism that increases our ability to work closer and more frequently with our customers is extremely valuable.2) Innovation InputWe’ve created prototypes of potential products and elicited input from the customer community in Second Life, which we have been directly able to incorporate into our advanced development efforts. Think of it like a focus group providing new product input, 24x7x365, worldwide. There is an artifact of one of these ‘elicitation events’ on the second floor of the Technology Center building on our virtual campus today, the Health Presence Pod, which is a proof of concept to stimulate discussion about what can be done to improve the current state of tele-medicine.3) Shared spacesAs I said in a prior post, there is a value of a common virtual space for the community to meet and interact. If it is an internal team meeting that crosses geographies, a business meeting, or a workshop with 50 customers, having a virtual ‘clubhouse’ to socialize in is a powerful substitute for the ‘beer and pizzas’ user-group meetings of days past.To Staff or not to Staff……..One question we frequently receive is why our virtual campus in Second Life is not staffed for walk-through traffic. Our answer is simple, we view our virtual campus as a place for our customers and partner community to socialize, with a healthy quantity of events held there to stimulate conversation and network-building (no pun intended). We are not a retail sales operation, selling routers and switches to customers who walk in, and we do not consider our virtual campus a retail outlet. The customers we meet for the first time in Second Life at our events generally ask to exchange additional information with us, email addresses or phone numbers, for follow on conversations and our help in locating local Cisco channel partners from which to purchase from. And when Linden Labs incorporates the ability to ‘call out’ via voice or instant messaging to customer service agents, we will provide those mechanisms for casual visitors.Ultimately, any tool or technology that allows Cisco to have high-quality, direct, and global customer feedback on a regular basis has direct value to us, as it is the Customer who drives our company.