Facebook (now aptly named Meta) has reportedly already spent $10 billion dollars on its augmented reality function. Phwoar. Naturally, we’re full of questions, but before we chew over some ethical considerations and marketing applications, it’s useful to ascertain what The Metaverse actually is…

According to Wired, The Metaverse is a term which encompasses a new vision for the way humans interact with technology; from virtual reality to augmented reality and even a growing digital economy where goods and services can be sold. It’s a blending of physical environments, haptics, sensations and essentially turns a flat 2D internet into a 3D reality. Better gaming experiences, shopping experiences, meeting experiences – you name it. We’re not quite in ‘Ready Player One’ territory, but we’re on our way.

Steven Spielberg’s 2018 science fiction film ‘Ready Player One’ tells the story of OASIS, a virtual reality simulation used by players to escape the real world.

Change is inevitable. And so is technological advancement. But this evolution begs the question: what’s the point of it all? Many have claimed it would offer more authentic experiences and deeper human connection. Our inner cynic sees big fat dollar signs reflected in the eyes of its creators in exchange for intangible assets with high risk. Currently, there are risk management implications for brands like third-party AI and server storage, writing new policies and safeguarding customer experience. But the opportunity to gather more data from users could plausibly ensure better marketing resonance and ultimately more selling opportunities. So, as marketers, should we be looking to embrace advertising’s new cash cow?

 

The Metaverse may take years to establish in its full form, but stepping stones are already being put in place. Within virtual reality, gamer platforms such as Roblox are already changing the interactions between consumers and brands. Fellow marketer Zoe Scaman writes: “What they’re doing is adding value to that overarching community. To the consumer, it feels like brands playing with them rather than brands marketing to them. And that’s a completely different dynamic”.

Rapper and singer Lil Nas X performed to a virtual audience of millions in popular game Roblox.

Why is consumers’ desire to play so great?

Play can provide escapism, connection, boost problem-solving abilities and tap into our dopamine hormones. According to neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, ‘the dopamine system is also known as the brain’s “seeking” circuitry, which propels us to explore new avenues for reward in our environment.’ When coupled with endorphins from positive experiences, consumers are therefore primed to discover or buy other things that make them feel rewarded. Gaming additionally triggers powerful emotional states, sparks memory, and focuses perception and attention. People’s judgement and decision-making capacities are also positively impacted by gaming experiences (source).

 

So, where brand marketing initiatives are experiential, gamified, and positive, target audiences are more likely to engage and react.

 

If marketers want to capitalise on identifying and resonating with prospects, what are the implications of digital personas on our behaviours?

The increased use of avatars, digital personas and gamer usernames provides creative control over how we present ourselves in online worlds. For many, a fantastical gaming persona helps distance themselves from the strains and stresses of everyday life.

 

Creating an online persona or avatar can be exciting and freeing. Opting for an avatar that looks or behaves nothing like you in the gaming world is often not malicious or harmful in essence but merely liberating, fitting with a fictitious narrative – but could this skew marketing messaging and targeting in a way that is not authentic nor applicable across other channels or real life? How would customer segmentation and key targeting metrics really work within The Metaverse? And how accurate would they be? Would marketers have access to granular user data? And would receptiveness rely entirely on the context at play?

 

Current generations are already battling Instagram filters and digital editing tools, so it is plausible to suggest the digital habits of these users could translate into The Metaverse. Ultimately, the question is – are our online gamified selves a true reflection of our human selves or merely a fantastical form of escapism from the very decisions marketers want to influence?

Mark Zuckerberg showed off his personal 3D avatar during Facebook’s Connect 2021 conference.

Who should be held accountable for upholding ethics and law in The Metaverse?

According to Andrew Bosworth, the virtual reality boss at Meta, ‘virtual reality can often be a “toxic environment” especially for women and minorities. In an internal memo from March, seen by the Financial Times, he said that moderating user behaviour “at any meaningful scale is practically impossible”. What would happen in the incidence that an online avatar or hologram made an inappropriate advance or gesture? Who would be responsible for investigating it? Meta? Your company? Considering criminal acts within an online space is increasingly complex and difficult to navigate. The need to ensure laws are put in place to protect the rights and liberties of users is necessary, though ultimately hard to facilitate whilst The Metaverse is still in an embryonic phase. Furthermore, how would brands cope with user feedback or dissatisfaction of products or services? How would the role of our social media managers change to respond to a 3D, not a 2D world?

 

From personal to financial risk, the notion that payments will be made online further calls for security and insurance. New markets will be emerging from this, but the notion of insuring intangible assets is certainly worth considering. Who ultimately owns them? If they are hosted on external servers, who is liable when things go wrong? And concerning data handling, how will we confidently maintain data protection, IP trademarks and so forth? What would happen in the incidence of identity theft or hacking? And how could this be proven? There are many complex questions arising within law and safety. UK ministers have stated that the Metaverse would be subject to the online safety bill, but does this go far enough?

 

Academics have noted how financially risky the investment is at this stage of development. For example, Mark Stapp, a cited professor and director for real estate theory and practice at the Arizona State University said: “I would not put money into this that I didn’t care about losing. I certainly wouldn’t […] If it continues the way it’s going, it is most likely going to be a bubble. You’re buying something that isn’t tied to reality.”

Popular virtual reality platform Decentraland allows players to pay for goods and services with cryptocurrency.

Data collection on steroids – how your physicality will give away clues

Whether you’ve got your head stuck in an AR headset or you’re wearing wearable tech, data collection is another big consideration when it comes to The Metaverse. From blood pressure, breathing rates and dwell time on screen, incorporating haptic, wearable or trackable tech into the platform will give big corporations more accurate behavioural data than ever before. The question remains: to what extent will this data collection be lawful or limited? And furthermore, is wearable tech genuinely improving user experiences of Augmented Reality or is it merely a gimmick? Check out Pebble Feel and Skinetic and decide for yourselves.

 

What does this mean for brands?

Brands grow through light buyers, so while Meta is in its transitional phase, marketers need to establish what the reach, user need and purchase journey looks like before committing. Furthermore, discerning marketers will want to know whether the activity genuinely drives more emotional responses at scale and ultimately, ROI.

 

Our advice? In the short term, identify your current target audiences, their media habits and determine whether Meta provides an opportunity for them. In the long term, monitor your existing marketing activity to ensure it’s delivering against your strategy, and keep an eye out for new developments and success stories in the Metaverse that may be relevant to your audience.

 

Regardless of what your thoughts on the Metaverse are, one thing’s for certain – it’s a topic that stirs up juicy conversation. But, for now, is the juice worth the squeeze?