WTF is the ‘Metaverse’ and what does it mean for marketing?

Charles Dangibeaud, GroupM product director, discusses some of the implications of Facebook's announcement last week that it is hiring 10,000 people in Europe with the sole focus of building the ‘Metaverse’, as well as an imminent rebrand to manifest this focus and signal a shift away from social media.

So, what’s the Metaverse you ask? And what does the Metaverse actually means for us in marketing?

Well, we’re yet to fully know, but what the move signals is that Facebook believes the future of digital engagement is a blended life, where we exist not only IRL but in the digital realm.

We are now entering a hybrid existence, where our lives straddle two different worlds. Before we dig into the wild speculation of what this could mean for us marketers, a bit of context setting is always useful.

The name ‘Metaverse’ actually comes from the 1992 novel ‘Snow Crash’ by Neal Stephenson, set in a futuristic and dystopian Los Angeles where the physical world is run down, lawless and where the wealth gap has reached stratospheric levels. Humans in this world are therefore driven to live their lives in the relatively safety of the virtual world, represented by avatars, and digitally go to work, events, bars, and everything in between.

This description might remind some people of the more recent release of the 2018 movie Ready Player One. As we live on our phones 24/7 and technologies like AR and VR become more accessible, with stories such as Ray Ban partnering with Facebook to create Augmented Reality glasses, what we’re seeing now, are tech giants trying to turn Stephenson’s concept into reality. And perhaps we all should have seen this coming, as Snow Crash is one of Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg’s favourite novels, so much so that it used to be given to all new starters.

So let’s just say he’s likely been thinking on this for quite some time and has big plans in store. But there’s no doubt the pandemic would have also helped accelerate this process. Through lockdowns, a lot of employees have been logging in to work from home and the idea of living virtually doesn’t really seem that strange anymore. Zoom meetings have supported an undercurrent of behaviour change and acceptance of not being together in person, and this will only accelerate the open mindedness of logging into a 3D virtual world where you can engage with people, objects, and spatial areas such as meeting rooms or social areas.

There’s in fact a number of newer, lesser-known businesses such as Decentraland and The Sandbox that stem from the gaming market that already allow people to host virtual events and buy or rent digital real estate. And yes, just like the real world, ‘land’ is more valuable depending on its location. The NFT boom has also been a leader of virtual events as people meet to visit virtual art fairs and galleries. All of this makes one wonder if the Metaverse really isn’t that far-fetched of a concept…

So, what’s this going to mean for marketers? Well, like any new innovation, it’s going to be a slow burn.

Perhaps what we’ll see first is the continued evolution in our thinking and ways of working towards increased collaboration between people with a broad range of skillsets, industries, and across geographies. The Metaverse will also intensify what we perceived today as 24/7 (the virtual space is always on) as well as break down the ideas of local and regional, as physical location as a concept fades into history. The brands who embrace this new way of thinking may be handsomely rewarded, and the time and money they spend on testing and iterating new strategies, will get them ahead of curve and engaging their customers the way no one else does. I first see more tangible media concepts being implemented as the first cabs off the rank, we will likely start with testing virtual outdoor media by buying ad space on the walls of popular buildings or busy avenues where users travel to go from location to location within the metaverse.

This will probably be followed by the integration of video ads into content being streamed in the metaverse, for example, a sports bar showing the latest EPL games where people from all over the world can go hang out to share the experience. And as acceptance evolves, we’ll go further down the long tail and start replicating strategies we only thought possible in person. Imagine a virtual direct marketing salesperson approaching you for trial of product sample or giving you a discount code, just like those you see as you exit Flinders Street station in the morning with Uber or DoorDash vouchers.

Apart from building a virtual world, there’s also huge potential in how we bridge the physical world to the virtual through omnichannel, or perhaps what some may one day call it, omniverse strategies. Imagine trying on and buying those new Jordan’s at the sneaker drop in the Metaverse Nike Store or test driving the latest Volvo XC40 Recharge around your Metaverse neighbourhood – and then receiving these goods at your physical home the next day.

The picture I’m painting here is the ultimate personalised, on demand content, where what you want and need just make sense. We’re starting to see some of this play out already in the gaming space where advertising can be placed on a billboard in your racing or football game, creating seamless customer experiences that minimise disruption. Imagining the future can seem a little bit crazy and sometimes a little bit scary, and it will take time for us to adapt, but it’s important to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.

Younger generations are growing up increasingly familiar with spending their lives online. If we think of gaming companies like Roblox or Minecraft, they’re starting to integrate dynamic advertising and VR into their platforms to increase engagement with players, many of whom will be part of the workforce in the next ten years – and they’re the future earners with disposable income, the future young families and the future grocery buyers. The brands that get ahead and take chances might be the ones to come out ahead of the curve.

Charles Dangibeaud is a product director at WPP’s GroupM. 


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