In 2007, a global computer manufacturer asked me to help create an experience in an emerging platform, Second Life. After spending less than an hour in the virtual world, I realized the then 4-year-old platform was still not ready for big brand engagement. Fast-forward to 2021 and the metaverse is creating a profound sense of Deja-vu. While the metaverse may not be ready for mass adoption in 2022, it does offer unique opportunities for early-adopter brand marketers now and in the future.
What is The Metaverse?
The origins of the ‘metaverse’ date back to 1992’s Snow Crash, when science fiction novelist Neal Stephenson originally coined the term to describe a virtual reality-based successor to the internet. According to Wikipedia, “a metaverse is a persistent online virtual environment that incorporates a broad range of Internet functions. In futurism, the term is often described as a hypothetical iteration of the Internet as a virtual world that is facilitated by the use of virtual and augmented reality headsets.”
There are a host of hardware and software technologies that characterize the metaverse. While phones, consoles and PCs can access gaming worlds, true metaverse experiences incorporate augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) which require headsets and other special tracking tech including cameras, gloves and motion suits. Similar to the internet, the metaverse is not a singular place. In these virtual worlds, participants can communicate, create assets, build on real estate, play games or watch events.
Why is The Metaverse important?
What makes the metaverse more compelling than previous virtual worlds like Second Life, is the fact emerging platforms incorporate trending technologies like blockchain, cryptocurrency and non-fungible tokens (NFTs) that allow creation and exchange of digital assets. The promise outlined by platform creators like Borget’s Sandbox and Zuckerberg’s Horizon World, is an engaging environment rich with culture (art galleries, museums) fun (games and events) and commerce (real estate and marketplaces). As a result, Wall Street is signaling excitement regarding revenue opportunities and Morgan Stanley is calling the metaverse “the next big theme” in investing. Most importantly, Meta (formerly Facebook) and Microsoft have committed billions of dollars into their respective metaverse platforms and associated acquisitions.
Why should marketers care about the Metaverse?
Despite the metaverse’s relative infancy, the long-term marketing potential of virtual worlds is limitless. For starters, the metaverse is pandemic-friendly and doesn’t rely on the over-stressed supply chain. The metaverse provides an entire digital ecosystem where brand marketers can connect, create and sell goods and services. For forward-leaning brands, the metaverse leverages hot technologies including VR goggles, blockchain, crypto and NFTs, providing opportunities to capture attention in the news cycle. Brands ranging from NASCAR and Vans to The Smurfs and Wonder Woman have all invested in the metaverse. A virtual land rush is sweeping The Sandbox, where a piece of land sold for $4.3 million and another parcel near Snoop Dogg’s virtual mansion recently sold for $450,000.
Challenges to widespread Metaverse adoption
The rampant enthusiasm for the metaverse from tech nerds and crypto enthusiasts has been tempered by healthy skepticism from all sides (mine included). For starters, the true metaverse requires hardware (VR headset), software (app) and cash (crypto). Moreso, it requires a bit of learning and significant amounts of patience, as a vast majority of virtual worlds are currently empty, featureless ghost towns (for now at least). There are concerns from critics that the metaverse is dangerously overhyped – primarily by those that benefit from adoption (platform developers and crypto investors), but also by brands joining the cause in an attempt to associate with trending technology and associated buzzwords without meaningful investment beyond a press release.
I agree with Elon Musk, in that average humans will not want headgear covering their faces for lengthy periods of time. This is especially true of a mask-less post-pandemic world. Microsoft and Meta promote the metaverse as the future platform for workplace collaboration, which experts refute, based on the recent pandemic experience (a desire to return to the office for face-to-face interactions). Another concern is that the proposed driving force behind adoption of the metaverse will be Generation Z (ages 9-24), yet a recent Harris Poll indicated only 38 percent of Gen Zs believe the metaverse will be the next big thing. The ability to effectively police the decentralized autonomous organizations (DAO-based) platforms from bad actors and behaviors is a significant hurdle yet to be understood let alone addressed. So far, community-based monitoring and enforcement has been lackluster at best.
Here is where my Second Life Deja-vu kicks in. Beyond hardware, hype and regulatory issues, I believe the primary hurdle facing today’s metaverse is a profound lack of value. Social media platforms have shown the power of digitally-connected communities (TikTok just dethroned Google as the world’s most popular domain) yet the most popular metaverse platforms (Decentraland for example) are devoid of active users, content, meaningful experiences or even the ability to complete the most basic ecommerce in-world transactions. Until developers and brands can create immersive and engaging experiences where users can try and buy products, the metaverse will be relegated to a side-show.
How to join the Metaverse
Despite the hurdles faced by today’s metaverse, I’m optimistic about its potential. For the forward-thinking marketer, there are a plethora of strategies and tactics available to create a meaningful presence in the metaverse. The first step is to evaluate which platform best maps to your target audience and objective. The most popular metaverse platforms currently include Meta’s Horizon World, Microsoft’s Mesh, Decentraland, The Sandbox and a host of game-based platforms (Fortnite, Minecraft and Roblox). Also keep an eye on emerging metaverse platforms, including Bloktopia, Highstreet, MetaHero, Nowhere, Sensorium Gallery, CryptoVoxels and Somnium Space.
The next step is to invest in the required hardware (i.e. Oculus or HoloLens) and purchase platform-compatible cryptocurrency, i.e. Ether (ETH), MANA (Decentraland), SAND (The Sandbox), AXS (Axie Infinity) or Robux (Roblox). Now it’s time to create an account and build an avatar to explore the metaverse and engage with other users. This is the approach I took 14 years ago with Second Life, to better understand the platform capabilities, users and future potential. At Anvil, we tend to lurk and evaluate before making serious decisions about emerging technology and encourage you to do the same.
How to market on the Metaverse
Now that you’ve familiarized yourself with the metaverse at a basic level, it’s time to develop a formalized metaverse marketing plan. The spectrum of options for creating a presence on the metaverse is broad in complexity and cost. If you’re looking to start small with a test engagement, I recommend evaluating advertising and sponsorship opportunities on popular platforms leveraging providers like Bidstack. Another option with potentially higher reach and engagement would be to partner with an influencer already known on the platform (while not as established as Instagram or YouTube, influencer marketing is expanding to the metaverse). Depending on your audience, industry and budget, it may also make sense to partner with other brands or directly with platforms to create unique products or experiences (you don’t have to be Gucci or Supreme to create a cool colab).
You don’t have to buy when you can build a presence on the metaverse. Consider creating collectable NFT assets (clothing/skins, objects/art or experiences). If you’re looking to boost engagement or gain insights from platform users, consider creating an artificial intelligence (AI) chatbot. It’s not only cost-effective, but it may also create better reach and credibility with an always-on approach to a sparce metaverse. If AI isn’t your bag, consider investing in virtual real estate and building a store or event. The ideal approach is to create a hybrid metaverse experience, integrating the real-world (store or event) with the virtual world, like Stella Artois’ virtual horse races. Lastly, don’t forget to maximize visibility of your metaverse presence with search engine optimization (SEO) tactics and leverage PR (i.e. press releases) to capitalize on the current appetite for metaverse-related news.
Even if you’re not inspired by Mark Zuckerberg’s legless world, wearing a headset all day or have $500,000 to drop on a small parcel of land in the Snoopverse, there are a plethora of opportunities for brand marketers to engage audiences in the metaverse. Better to have the first-mover advantage than to limit yourself to marketing exclusively in the real world.