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The Metaverse is dead. Long live the Metaverse.

WSA Head of PR & Marketing, Joe Cuffaro, dives into all things Metaverse this month, sharing his take on the opportunities and pitfalls of a future digital utopia. 

When Facebook rebranded itself as Meta it was clear that the Metaverse would be the next big talking point in business technology development. Any concept that promises to change the way we interact, work or live is destined to have both adopters and detractors, but the sustainability of an idea through time can be the only true determining factor for success and longevity.

Cryptocurrencies and NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are two recent examples of game-changing technology principles that show exactly what the Metaverse can expect. Both have generated huge buzz and there is now an abundance of articles and experts only too willing to tell you why they are the future of life itself. But equally, there are just as many credible commentators who will tell you the novelty of each has peaked and both are already dead. The Metaverse is no different.

Is this bonkers or actually happening?

In short, both.

From a marketing perspective, the important question businesses need to ask themselves is whether this is something to concentrate efforts on or not. Will this soon be the modern way to engage with the audience you need to speak to? Is it wise to wait and see or are you already missing out on valuable virtual real estate?

Meeting up in a virtual café with animated avatars to discuss next week’s social strategy might sound like a farfetched idea. But don’t we already get together on a virtual platform for webcam meetings regularly since lockdowns decreed we could not meet physically for a while? Haven’t comments in instantaneous Microsoft Teams channels and shared working spaces replaced email chains and phone calls for many projects already? Everybody knows someone who dislikes technology and would have refused outright to try and learn how to do a ZOOM call before they were forced to. Now, you would be hard pushed to find anyone of working age (or otherwise) who could not set one of these up.

Is this a novelty, or can it solve real-world problems?

You would be forgiven for thinking this is a bit of fun that doesn’t stretch beyond that. I still get a kick out of joining different calls with a fun greenscreen background, but if I lost that function tomorrow, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it.

Making ourselves presentable for web-call interactions can still be an efficiency drawback, even if it shows we are really at our laptops working, rather than in our PJs watching Disney+. Cats will still walk across screens. Children will continue to invade home office setups. But as businesses have been forced to trust outcomes, results and quality of work instead of presenteeism, this has not seen them go bust. Many have actually improved performances since adopting these approaches.

Is it wrong to suggest that the introverted, who may never feel comfortable with a camera pointing at them or seeing back their face on a screen, might conduct themselves better in an environment where they feel equal to their more extroverted or body-confident colleagues and peers? No, not at all. As long as parameters for accountability remain, developing new ways of connecting and conversing to suit all personalities and character traits factors in nicely to many vocalised business plans around wellbeing, mental health and equal opportunities for all.

The future is now. But how soon is now?

Recent history shows us that how we live our lives can change slowly or in a quick, dramatic fashion. The evolution of the Smartphone was relatively gradual and saw ideas like the BlackBerry Pin gain traction, before falling by the wayside to WhatsApp. iPhone and Android devices saw us leave Snake II and create-a-ringtone features permanently in our wake – but it wasn’t until fourth, fifth and sixth-generation models that conformity became more widespread amongst all demographics, despite loud noises being made from early adopters before that. On the other hand, when life throws a curveball like COVID-19, solutions like ZOOM and Microsoft Teams can go from nice-to-have technology to essential everyday software in a matter of weeks.

The Metaverse idea will appeal to younger generations first and foremost, as most technology-focused novel concepts do. Businesses that focus primarily on user personas from this target audience will be quick to immerse themselves in this space, and rightly so if they want to get ahead of perceived competition. After PR stories begin to emerge on early entrepreneurial success, more will quickly follow suit, either because they can see a gap in the market not currently being serviced or simply due to FOMO (fear of missing out).

It will only take one fast-food chain to launch a Metaverse store for processing orders, collections and deliveries, followed by some initial news on encouraging data and stats, before every major restaurant and minor food competitor dips their toe in the water. Just look at the range of companies now available on UberEats, Deliveroo and the like. The success and failures each find in 12 months, over five years or within a decade will ultimately determine whether the idea has its moment early on or truly changes how we interact and engage with that kind of business in future.

Haven’t we been here before?

Tik Tok is the prime example of timing something right. You could easily have looked at the fall of Vine and presumed the platform would experience a similar fate. But we are an increasingly digital-first society, where tales of virtual futures like Ready Player One are becoming closer to science-fact than science-fiction.

You might (or might not) remember PlayStation Home – a virtual space designed to allow PS3 gamers to interact with each other in an online world environment. You could customise your avatar to look like you and interact with other gamers who in theory would have similar interests. Think the SIMS lite.  The idea promised exclusives like upcoming game trailers being played at the in-world movie theatre. Many people never realised it even existed. Others tried it once and never logged on again. Perhaps the world wasn’t quite ready for the concept in 2005. Maybe, it just wasn’t executed very well. Or did the complete lack of engagement with the idea suggest that the Metaverse is similarly doomed to fail? The sustained success of AR (augmented reality) mobile games like Pokemon Go might suggest otherwise, but not every Metaverse will be based on worldwide intellectual property. Interestingly, Sony renewed the trademark for Home in 2021 suggesting it may be set for a comeback on the PS5.

Speaking of gaming

How a Metaverse will balance giving users the control and freedom they desire without affording each the ability to ruin the experience for others, could largely determine individual success. The idea of entering a virtual space with other like-minded folks from around the world is appealing but loses appeal if the pathway is blocked by users with nefarious agendas.

Gaming remains the prime example for both the potential and pitfalls of the Metaverse concept. Games like FIFA have faithfully recreated sports environments and offered companies a new way of advertising, such as sponsoring weekly online events or even the ability to pay for billboards in virtual grounds where games are played online.

Open-world environments where players pay real-world money to personalise their fantasy avatars is nothing new and it is clear money can be made from giving people the chance to interact in this way (the power to shape the narrative of the life they choose to lead vs the circumstances they are born into). The problem with any open-world interactive environment isn’t always what you would do with that space. It’s often how your experience is affected by others around you. The more popular the virtual world is the more interrupted this path can become.

Anyone who has played games like GTA online will know it is possible to enter a virtual world with a clear objective and to enjoy the company of others in a shared experience. But you will also know that others will go to extreme lengths to find ways to make your experience intolerable, either to stream the event with the hope of going viral, or just to watch the world burn (see the infamous and hilarious World of Warcraft troll Leeroy Jenkins). If a Metaverse fails to give people enough freedom or gives too much, it is destined to fail and any chance to engage from a marketing perspective will be lost.

Welcome to the virtual office

I can’t help but wonder what a Metaverse Marketing agency could look like. Imagine visiting an office but in virtual form. Are the meeting rooms busy? Just generate a new one. Get the benefits of seeing a team come together and bounce around ideas, whilst still from the comfort of being at home. Save on costs from not commuting to work but still feel like you have visited a location and gotten into a creative zone. Forgot to water the office plant? It still looks as lush as ever. Most importantly, enjoy a catch up with colleagues, without the temptation of offices cakes.

We do not know what pricing will be and it will likely end up like websites, a wild-west where this is variable and chosen by buyers based on expertise, quality and service. But you would think a virtual space to conduct activities will typically cost far less to run compared to the rates of leasing a physical location.

Remember how exciting it was when your company went through a refresh, updated the colour scheme, painted the walls with new colours and added new work examples and case studies around the building? What if you could do that with a click of the button and mix things up every month? Even for the biggest sceptic, the potential to save and inspire is clear to see.

So, what’s the verdict?

My personal view is that the Metaverse will go the same way as 3D films. There will be a boom of interest, new technology will be released to accompany it and there will a plethora of options to incorporate advertising, marketing and branding success. It will then have to adapt to survive and more than likely, as the generation that initially embraces it grows a little older, something new will come in to supersede it or simply the novelty will wear off. VR headsets and Google Glass looked set to revolutionise everyday life, but neither has achieved those lofty ambitions (as yet!).

That is not to say that businesses should avoid looking at the opportunity very closely right now. Long-term aspirations are integral to any marketing plan but often, the here and now can be overlooked. If something speaks directly to the audience you want to reach at this current moment and there is an opportunity to capitalise, you should always investigate it and benchmark the ROI against other channels of investment. The Metaverse is no different.

Now, where did I leave the encrypted key to my digital castle? I need to fix the drawbridge before my friends pop over to discuss the weekend’s virtual football fixtures …

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