Imagine walking down the street. Suddenly, you think of a product you need. Immediately next to you, a vending machine appears, filled with the product and variations you were thinking of. You stop, pick an item from the vending machine, it’s shipped to your house, and then continue on your way.
Next, imagine a husband and wife. The husband offers to go to the store but the wife can’t remember the name and type of product she needs. Her brain-computer interface device recognizes it for her and transmits a link to her husband’s device, along with what stores and aisles it’s located in.
Welcome to the metaverse, alternate digital realities where people work, play, and socialize. You can call it the metaverse, the mirror world, the AR Cloud, the Magicverse, the Spatial internet, or Live Maps, but one thing is for certain, it’s coming and it’s a big deal.
Google the term metaverse and you’ll find several definitions. Wikipedia defines it as a collective virtual shared space, created by the convergence of virtually enhanced physical reality and physically persistent virtual space, including the sum of all virtual worlds, augmented reality, and the Internet. The word “metaverse” is a portmanteau of the prefix “meta” (meaning beyond) and “universe“; the term is typically used to describe the concept of a future iteration of the internet, made up of persistent, shared, 3D virtual spaces linked into a perceived virtual universe.
Currently, you can only experience the internet when you go to it, but with new connectivity, devices and technologies, we’ll be able to experience it all around every single day.
More than just a term from a Neal Stephenson sci-fi novel, the metaverse is being built today. Wired’s Kevin Kelly wrote a cover story in 2019 titled “Welcome to the Mirrorworld”. In it, he describes how augmented reality will spark the next big tech platform. In essence, “we are building a 1-to-1 map of almost unimaginable scope. When it’s complete, our physical reality will merge with the digital universe.” In other words, get ready to meet your digital twin, and the digital twin of your house, your country, your office, and even your life.
So what happens when the world becomes a billboard, robots have spatial reasoning and virtual assistants own the relationship with the consumer? If this question made you pause for a second, definitely read on.
Today, the metaverse is a shared virtual space where people are represented by digital avatars (think Ready Player One). The virtual world constantly grows and evolves based on the decisions and actions of the society within it. Eventually, people will be able to enter the metaverse, completely virtually (i.e. with virtual reality) or interact with parts of it in their physical space with the help of augmented and mixed reality.
Leslie Shannon, Nokia’s Head of Trend Scouting, referred to the importance of the metaverse, or spatial internet, in a recent talk during the VRARA’s Global Summit. During her talk she stated that, “The spatial internet is the culmination of everything that AR and VR is developing today. It’s the idea of taking information about things, locations, or historical events and actually locating that information out there in the world where it’s most relevant.” Augmented reality and virtual reality will be the ways you will see this information layer.
Marketing and communications professionals need to pay attention to the metaverse because it’s the next frontier for online interaction. Just like social media revolutionized the online marketing landscape, so too will the metaverse. While we don’t have one shared metaverse at this time, there are companies positioning working on creating it.
Fortnite, Minecraft, and Animal Crossing are games now but they already have big user bases, detailed worlds, and user-generated content. Facebook is also positing itself towards the metaverse with its virtual reality social media platform, Horizon (currently in beta), and Live Maps. Niantic, Magic Leap, Microsoft and many others are working on it too.
The pandemic too has shifted culture online. Family reunions on Zoom, weddings relocated to Animal Crossing, graduations on Minecraft and virtually trying on clothes have all become common practices. With online social gatherings becoming more mainstream and online video games increasing their world-building, “it’s inevitable that brands will play a significant role in the metaverse.”
Companies will need to transition their marketing strategies from online ad buys to existing in a shared, virtual economy. Companies will need to do market research on their new customers in the metaverse. How people act and what their preferences are in the metaverse could be totally different than how they behave and what they shop for in real life. Add to that the layer of business to robot to consumer, where virtual assistants and robots own the relationship with the consumer and it all starts to make sense.
While there are sure to be ads in the metaverse, brands can actually be part of creating the metaverse itself. Frederic Descamps, CEO of Manticore games said, “Even in [the film] ‘Ready, Player, One,’ who actually made the Metaverse there? It will be all about the act of creation.” Brands should approach this with responsibility and ethics and not make our world one giant ad. This is of the utmost importance.
Like the real world, CMOs must have an awareness of the culture inside the metaverse. Digital clothing, world-building, or marketing can have a real impact on brands. In December 2019, clothing options were released in GTA V that looked similar to what the protestors in Hong Kong wore. In the game, “players dressed as Hong Kong protesters took to the [fictional] streets of Los Santos.” Gamers, donned in black, with yellow hard hats and gas masks rioted in the game. Chinese players took notice, dressed their characters up as police, and fought back against the gamers dressed as protestors.
In the metaverse, people won’t be individually wandering around. They will have friendships, relationships (with autonomous NPCs, holograms or other people) who will affect their decisions. Brands will need to continue adapting to relationship styles of play and interactions. Customers won’t just be able to talk to brands like on social media, they’ll be able to interact with them in 3D form.
Online shopping is a given in the metaverse. But it’s more than digitally trying on clothes people can purchase for real life. Virtual fashion, avatar “skins”, and virtual real estate (housing, cars, etc.) will have their own worth in the metaverse. Companies will have to design brands for different people at different stages of wealth. People who invest heavily in the metaverse may have their own businesses and property, therefore partner opportunities with businesses that don’t exist in physical reality.
Fashion is a big part of creating a character or being represented by an avatar. Virtual fashion houses and designers have a chance to enter a whole new market of digital-first clothing. The metaverse is about identity in ways that haven’t been possible before.
In Fortnite, real-world celebrities play the game and players become celebrities themselves. A 2018 Reach3 Insights study found that “most streamers aren’t vastly different from the friends’ players already spend time with in real life, making those streamers that much more relatable and valuable.” In the metaverse, brands won’t be able to hide behind the scenes with pre-made ads, commercials, and products. They themselves will have to be personable and approachable.
People go to Wendy’s Twitter for the chance to get roasted. People will go to brands in the metaverse because they feel a connection, not necessarily a need for that product or service. Wendy’s is one company already experimenting with the metaverse.
In November 2018, they set up a “Food Fight” mission in Fortnite and live-steamed it to Twitch. Wendy’s didn’t appear in the game, but they did ask players to go after the in-game restaurant, Durr Burger (as a dig at Wendy’s rivals). Wendy’s went from zero Twitch followers to more than 7,400 and got around 43,500 comments during the game.
Jimmy Bennet, Wendy’s senior director of media and social said they didn’t pay for Twitch or Fortnite because it’s more exhausting to go after paid promotions than natural outreach. Bennet said, “We didn’t have to do so much heavy lifting and put so much money to support it because we were able to organically lean into the experience.” This is the type of mindset CMOs and brands will need for the metaverse.
Another great example of the how the metaverse is starting to manifest itself in entertainment was John Legend’s recent Bigger Love virtual concert that used the Wave XR’s technology to broadcast a virtual John Legend, raise funds for charity and was seen by 500,000 live attendees.
A Huge Opportunity
A new iteration of the internet is being worked on and this will have massive implications for society. Marketing, communications, and branding professionals will face new challenges but also new opportunities. This new era of the metaverse will unleash amazing creativity and open up new frontiers and horizons for brands and businesses. Now the question is, how are you getting ready?
This article first appeared on Forbes by Cathy Hackl