What is the metaverse? This has been the question on many marketers’ lips since 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg announced that Facebook was being rebranded as ‘Meta’, and committed the newly renamed company to developing a metaverse that would become a “successor to the mobile internet”.
In this article, we’ll tell you what a metaverse could look like, how it could change marketing, and why the metaverse concept is far bigger than Facebook’s mission alone.
‘The metaverse’ is a concept which some influential people and powerful companies believe could be the successor to the mobile internet.
A key distinction between this metaverse concept and the internet as we know it, is that the user would be digitally present within a virtual, or ‘embodied’, space. They are not so much on the internet, as in it.
There are various opinions on what the metaverse would be like. Most commentators seem to agree that the term means an interconnected system of mostly 3D online spaces, which a person could navigate while using a device such as a VR headset or smartphone.
The users would do this in the guise of a digital persona, or avatar. While using the metaverse, a digital persona would be able to move seamlessly from one virtual world to the next, while retaining their identity and keeping hold of virtual assets such as currencies and graphics.
These spaces and digital personas would persist through time, even when nobody is using them, thus forming a ‘meta’ universe that layers over reality.
Media commentators and tech brands often refer to a singular ‘the metaverse’, but it’s highly debatable whether such a thing currently exists as much more than a concept.
There are already virtual worlds that hint at the possibilities of a metaverse, such as Fortnite’s online community, in which players can venture outside of the game’s ‘battle royale’ action to socialise and watch online concerts together, or VR hangout applications where people can interact with friends, play games and engage in other activities within a world comprising multiple spaces.
Activities within these spaces are sometimes described as happening “in the metaverse” – but it’s often more accurate to say they’re a form of ‘virtual social’, or ‘social VR’.
We’ll only really have one true metaverse when some of the most popular virtual communities start to link up within a common infrastructure. When we reach the point where a person’s digital avatar can move seamlessly between autonomous virtual spaces and experiences – much like we navigate places on the internet using links and search – there’ll be a stronger argument to say that the metaverse has arrived.
What we do have at present, is some of the proposed building blocks of a potential future metaverse.
Matthew Ball, a venture capitalist and prominent writer on the metaverse, has devised a framework for a future metaverse, called the Ball Metaverse Index. He argues that the following factors could jointly enable a fully-fledged metaverse:
Ball foresees the metaverse coming about through a conversion of improvements in all of these categories – much as smartphones emerged from a coming together of breakthroughs spanning wireless connectivity, hardware innovations, industry standards and other areas.
It’s easy to get carried away while studying compelling materials like the Ball Metaverse Index – but some commentators are unconvinced that the metaverse concept will come to fruition.
As Wired puts it: “Companies and entrepreneurs have sensed some kind of change coming in the air, and they are scrambling to call it the next big thing, put their label on it (in some case going to Meta-rebranding-level extremes), and find ways of monetizing it. The question is whether we—the intended users—will go along with it.”
Adoption of the technologies that could power the metaverse currently varies greatly among interest groups and demographics. According to research published by Statista in 2019, millennials in the UK were more than twice as likely to own a VR headset as their compatriots in Generation X. Meanwhile, a GlobalWebIndex poll of UK and US nationals found that just 16% of female respondents had used a VR headsets at least once, while 30% of male respondents said they had used the tech.
Virtual reality isn’t the be all and end all of the metaverse, but it would likely be an important component. This will bring challenges for metaverse advocates, as long as VR remains a somewhat niche interest. CCS Insight forecasts that VR and AR device sales will reach 71 million per year by 2025 – which, while somewhat impressive, hardly represents the universality of uptake needed to fuel a true metaverse.
Many businesses are currently weighing up whether they should be investing their time and capital into the metaverse concept. That’s a tough question, because at the time of writing it’s impossible to know whether the metaverse will turn out to be the next big thing, or just a buzzword promoted by tech brands seeking to reinvent themselves.
Speaking of which, one of the world’s biggest companies is so invested in the metaverse concept, it bet its name on it…
Several big tech brands have started developing products for the metaverse. Most strikingly, Facebook changed its name to Meta in October 2021, while announcing a new mission to build a metaverse that would bring users “inside the internet”.
Facebook’s (Meta’s) position could turn out to be a canny business move. By tying their brand to the word ‘metaverse’, before such a thing exists, the company is claiming a disproportionately strong association between themselves and the metaverse. Just as Microsoft was preeminently influential over the internet in the 1990s and 2000s, Meta seems to have designs on dominating the early metaverse.
It is thought that Meta spent as much as $10bn on metaverse-related projects in 2021. The company has been developing hundreds of solutions to facilitate its social VR/metaverse products. A Financial Times article published in January 2022 revealed details of patents submitted by Meta to the US Patent and Trademark Office. These included patents for a virtual store where users can shop for branded virtual goods; advanced facial tracking tech which would enable virtual experiences to adapt to the user’s emotions; and a wearable magnetic sensor system for body pose tracking.
Meta’s new metaverse-focused tech has clear potential for positive uses, but it is not without its critics. Noelle Martin, a legal reformer based at the University of Western Australia, told the Financial Times:
“Meta aims to be able to simulate you down to every skin pore, every strand of hair, every micromovement.
“The objective is to create 3D replicas of people, places and things, so hyper-realistic and tactile that they’re indistinguishable from what’s real, and then to intermediate any range of services . . . in truth, they’re undertaking a global human-cloning programme.”
Meta isn’t the only company staking its claim to the metaverse. In January 2022, Microsoft described its $68.7bn acquisition of the games studio Activision Blizzard as a “way to create the building blocks of the metaverse.” In the same month, Apple CEO Tim Cook disclosed that the company “[sees] a lot of potential in [the metaverse] space and [is] investing accordingly.”
With all that said, no single tech brand is likely ever to have a monopoly on the metaverse, which is a concept even bigger than Meta, Microsoft and Apple.
If the metaverse does come to fruition, it’s going to be a game-changer for marketers, on a par with the invention of smartphones and mobile marketing.
The metaverse would be an entirely new arena for marketing – from placing adverts and content marketing, to selling and delivering products and services. As marketers, we would all need to learn how the new technology works, and how it relates to our brands and customers.
However, a fully formed metaverse, where individuals and societies inhabit a virtual world that functions in parallel with our present reality, is likely decades away from becoming possible. Before that point, we’d need to see sweeping developments in areas including technology, human behaviour and law. Even Nick Clegg, a VP at Meta, has said that the metaverse could take 10 years to build.
All of this would suggest that the metaverse is not something you’ll need to factor into your next marketing plan.
The metaverse may not exist yet – but some brands have already started to deliver marketing campaigns using technologies that would be central to any future metaverse, especially social VR.
In March 2021, fashion brand Gucci launched a range of virtual footwear that could be worn by users’ avatars in VR apps including Roblox. As The Verge reports, buyers could wear the virtual sneakers within multiple VR applications, after buying them for $12.99 within the Gucci app.
New exclusive collaboration incoming for #Pokemon25!— Pokémon UK (@PokemonNewsUK) October 5, 2021
Spot Pikachu hidden on garments in the Electric/City metaverse, in @CharliCohen’s exclusive streetwear collection at @Selfridges. pic.twitter.com/QJ9D6wYoEv
The beloved gaming IP, Pokémon celebrated its 25th anniversary last year through a collaboration with Yahoo RYOT Lab, Selfridges and the designer Charli Cohen, which created a virtual city where users could shop for exclusive virtual and physical products – providing a taste of how people might shop within a metaverse.
Campaigns like Gucci’s VR footwear and Pokémon’s shoppable virtual city have sometimes been described as having taken place “in the metaverse”, but at the moment it’s more accurate to say that the campaigns used technologies that may eventually be involved in the metaverse. Nonetheless, these examples do provide useful insights into how metaverse marketing could be done.
The metaverse is a fascinating concept, isn’t it? Depending on your point of view, this new collision of technologies that brings you “inside the internet” could be an incredible opportunity to sell, socialise and live within a new virtual universe – or it could be a step too far beyond the physical world.
Either way, whatever Mark Zuckerberg tells you, the metaverse is a long way from becoming a reality.
What marketers should focus on in the short and medium terms, is the developing relationship between real people and shared virtual spaces. With increasing numbers of people now spending time in virtual places, this could be the right moment to start thinking about how your brand and your marketing would translate into a virtual context.
Focus on how your customers are using metaverse-related tech like social VR, seek insights into their behaviour on virtual platforms, and you may start to form an idea of what metaverse marketing might one day look like for your brand.