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Why the joke could be on those who mock the metaverse’s marketing potential

Gareth Thomas from PAN Communications argues that all brands - B2B and B2C - should start exploring the metaverse.

Does radio ring a bell?” That was David Letterman’s sarcastic quip in 1995 when Bill Gates excitedly tried to explain the coming power of the internet.

Specifically, it was Gates’ example of a baseball game, due to be broadcast online for the first time, that elicited Letterman’s mocking response and barrel laughs from the nineties audience.

Nearly thirty years on, the internet-powered revolution Gates envisioned has come to pass.

It was accelerated in the noughties by the advent of the Social Web, with the likes of YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn and Wordpress transforming our worlds.

I’d argue we’re now on the cusp of another seismic change in how we interact with information and communicate with each other.

The metaverse - a broad term given for interactive 3D online worlds in which we live, play and work - is coming.

Or rather, it’s already here.

If you have children, younger nieces or nephews aged seven or older, chances are they already spend a fair amount of time in Minecraft, Roblox or Fortnite.

If they’re anything like my kids, they probably already pester you for Robux or V-bucks spending money. Collectively, more than 500m people regularly interact in these three metaverse-like worlds.

Other metaverse worlds are gaining traction: Sandbox and Decentraland are two of the most popular.

These platforms start to reveal more about the way the metaverse is headed.

They introduce the idea of having an avatar that you can take with you as you move between individual - but ‘open’- worlds, along with your blockchain-based virtual currency.

The creator economy is already thriving in these places too, as developers earn money (real or virtual) and status by building stuff.

They move us closer to the kind of experience you may have seen in Spielberg’s blockbuster movie Ready Player One. And whilst VR goggles make these worlds even more immersive, they are by no means essential.

Depending on your perspective, the metaverse is either a coming dystopian nightmare that will see us all hooked on screens 24/7, or a force for good that will transcend real-world prejudices and level the playing field for people to interact online in exciting new ways.

That is a big debate, but a nonsensical one to have in my view. The metaverse will be both good and bad, just like the real world.

But it’s coming. 

As communicators our job is to be the ‘headlights’ of organisations - looking ahead down the road and imaging the change it will bring.

Getting to grips with the metaverse

So, what might you do to start getting your head round it?

First, I’d suggest playing.

Join your kids in Fortnite or Minecraft. You’ll quickly learn a lot about what’s possible in these worlds, and may be surprised how kids are discovering strategy, or how to communicate and work as a team. You can also explore ideas of identity and take a look at what they’re spending their (your!) money on.

Next, jump into and get yourself an avatar. It takes a few seconds, a quick selfie and with a little customisation you can end up looking a lot younger if you so choose!

Then, try playing in some of the emerging worlds like Sandbox. Or explore, which is aiming to satisfy the huge demand for building stuff in the metaverse with an AI-powered solution that effectively allows you to code with just voice commands.

You may even think about investing in some real estate in these worlds. In some metaverse worlds, the price of land doubled in six months last year and spots close to celebrity-backed venues like Snoop Dog’s ‘Snoopverse’ mansion is already going fast.

Explore what other brands are already doing too. B2C brands are leading the way, with Gap, Gucci and Burberry all creating NFTs and virtual versions of their products. Nike is a leader and twigged some time ago that there was money to be made by dressing avatars in swoosh-splashed apparel. It has already taken our several trademarks to protect itself against virtual knockoffs in the metaverse.

Hardly surprising when you consider that in 2021 analysts reported that people already spent more than eighty billion dollars on virtual goods sold in video games.

But B2B brands are piling in too - some, like JP Morgan, sniffing an opportunity to communicate with customers in new ways; others are pivoting to offer services or infrastructure to build the metaverse. VCs specialising in this space are eager to invest in the B2B ‘picks and shovels’ that are facilitating the virtual gold rush.

When it comes to the potential impact on how your organisation may market itself in the future, try exploring some of the following questions:

  • How might my target customers use the metaverse?
  • Could we enhance our digital experience for customers by moving from explainer video to fully immersive 3D demos?
  • Are there emerging MV trade shows or events we might want to experiment with? Do I need a virtual storefront?
  • How could the metaverse impact customer purchase journeys, and if I start targeting customers there do I profile the real person on their avatar’s characteristics and behaviours?
  • How might we evolve to using MV collaboration or training tools in our team?

Maybe consider writing a memo or strategy paper for your organisation: if nothing else, laying out questions that deserve further exploration.

Of course, there’s a chance that the metaverse doesn’t go anywhere. But where’s the harm in starting a discussion? As JP Morgan said in a recent strategy paper: “Although the metaverse has evolved very quickly…and it is difficult to base a business strategy on such a dynamic space, the risk of being left behind is worth the incremental investment needed to get started.”

For most companies, getting started doesn’t need to mean investing $10billion – the amount Zuckerberg spent building out Meta’s metaverse offering in 2021.

Above all, stay open minded. Avoid the temptation to dismiss this as a gimmick for kids: as Letterman himself admitted in 1995, ‘it’s easy to criticise something you don’t fully understand’.

If, in the next few years, the metaverse has even a fraction of the impact which the internet has had since 1995, then the joke will be on those that failed to take a proper look and plan for it.

Article written by Gareth Thomas, managing director, PAN Communications

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