(Originally published on AdAge)
In all the excitement about the metaverse and its potential for brands, it’s easy to forget that it’s actually nothing new. We’ve seen new digital frontiers make their debut before—particularly Second Life in the early 2000s. It led to a brand rush of heavy hitters including GM, Leo Burnett and others but failed to pave the way for virtual marketing.
The metaverse is certainly more viable now. As with so much of the internet, Moore’s Law—that the number of transistors in a dense integrated circuit and, hence, their capability, doubles about every two years—is at play here. The advances of computing power make the creation and usage of 3D spaces easier and more accessible. More people have computers and phones that can access these without jarring rendering. Also, Gen Z and Generation Alpha are growing up in virtual worlds in a way no previous generation has—with Fortnite and Roblox going mainstream and blockchain technologies such as NFTs making waves. Then there’s the pandemic, which resulted in more people stuck at home looking for connection.
The metaverse has been set up to scratch the itch of socialization in a way that didn’t exist until this moment. Still, that doesn’t make it an easy win for brands—they can still find themselves on the outside looking in if they can’t find a way to organically participate in these new virtual communities.
Brands learned these same lessons on the rocky road to understanding how to market on social media. In the early days, social media marketing was seen as risky, with brands participating in ways that ranged from awkward to bizarre. It was only later that they truly began to understand the communities and rules of the new world. To avoid more missteps with the metaverse, brands must apply the lessons of social and take these steps to bring value in these early, formative days:
Get in early
When it comes to the metaverse, many brands may think it’s a time to sit back and see what happens. Instead, they should be building connections with the creators and audiences there or risk falling behind. The history of each new social platform, from Facebook to TikTok, is filled with brands that thought they had time to spare, only to end up struggling to gain traction once the platform became oversaturated.
Since the metaverse is probably the biggest change to the internet since the birth of social media, caution seems to make sense. But especially in these early days, the brands that will be successful will be the ones providing tools or entertainment, helping to chart the metaverse’s landscape or even just learning what makes it tick.
For brands that want to mitigate risk, that may involve creating partnerships with those who have been the initial creators and early adopters, as we did with Netflix to promote the art heist doc-series “This is a Robbery” or Adidas did in its collaboration with the Bored Ape Yacht Club.
Know your audience
One of many hurdles in successfully building a brand on social media is knowing who you are trying to reach so that you can offer the right content. But this is an especially important step for the metaverse because there is no singular metaverse right now—rather a lot of virtual spaces each with different audiences. Brands need to familiarize themselves with the various key players and look for opportunities—ones that match the people who are participating in those specific spaces with the biggest opportunities for their brands.
There’s no shortcut to getting to know audiences. You have to be a consumer first. It comes across as inauthentic and jarring to those passionate about the space when a brand tries to do something without having first learned what the norms are that govern the communities. From there, brands can start to come up with strategic and creative ideas that are additive to the ecosystem and don’t just come across as a brand trying to cash in on the latest trend.
Once an audience is better understood, these spaces also provide a huge opportunity for brands to engage with audiences online and build communities in a new way. We saw this last year with Animal Crossing as brands began building spaces and hosting events within that world. We should expect this to be more constant as both individuals and brands themselves become more immersed within the metaverse.
Embrace the unknown
One of the things that’s so exciting about the metaverse is that the rate of change and progress is happening so quickly that nobody really knows where we’re headed. It’s exciting because we’re at the forefront of a new technology and so many people have the ability to be the catalyst of change. TikTok, Snapchat, and other social platforms followed similar paths—with the unknown giving way to a set of identities, best practices and rules largely defined by the users.
When you start to remove the parameters often in place, it creates opportunities to do something truly unique. As Facebook and likely other social platforms begin to focus within this space, we could see big integrations between their existing platforms and these new digital worlds, creating even more opportunities. Will there be difficult and uncertain times along the way? Almost certainly. But TikTok’s brand viability was being seriously debated as recently as a year ago. Now it’s starting to be seen as a staple of social marketing budgets. The metaverse may provide a similar trajectory and level of opportunity. But brands will have to start experimenting to find out.