Do we want or need the metaverse?

The metaverse. It’s everywhere. On social media, in articles, even in boardrooms. Who knows, just like in The Matrix, maybe we’re living in it right now and don’t even realise it.

To most of us though, this seems unlikely.

However, there is no denying that our conversations have shifted over the past two years towards finding virtual solutions to physical problems. And whilst many of us couldn’t wait to have these conversations at the coffee station rather than over Zoom, the fact that work and life could continue during isolation is a testament to how quickly the world can change and how quickly we can adapt to it.

Enter the metaverse. Until last year, you may not even have heard of it. But people have been talking about it at least as far back as 2003 with the release of Second Life, an online virtual world where users are represented by avatars, there’s an economy and socialisation.

But the metaverse stretches further back than that. The foundations of it first entered the popular imagination in two groundbreaking novels: William Gibson’s cyberpunk novel Neuromancer (1982) and Neil Stephenson’s Snow Crash (1992).

Gibson gave us terms like cyberspace and a virtual reality dataspace called the matrix. This is described as a simulated “consensual hallucination”. Not unlike what many feel the metaverse might become.

Stephenson first introduced the term the metaverse as the virtual internet populated by digital representations of users, or avatars.

It seems now that science fiction is becoming science fact. And although we’re not quite there yet, the question on a lot of people’s minds when thinking of the metaverse is: Do we really need it, and do we even want it?

What is the metaverse?

According to Ryan Gill, CEO of Crucible, a metaverse development company, the metaverse is the internet built by gamers. It is difficult to underestimate the impact that gaming has had over the past 20 – 30 years. Statista reports that in 2021 there are over 3 billion gamers in the world. [1]

If you have children aged anywhere between six and sixteen, you will no doubt be familiar with Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. All three were built by different companies, but all comprising a virtual world, user-controlled avatars for interaction and socialization, and some form of digital economy.

These are the foundations of what the metaverse is intended to be. It is a shared, persistent digital environment where users can work, play, go to concerts, watch movies, or just hang out.

The metaverse brings together a blend of social media, VR, AR, online gaming, and cryptocurrencies to create its ecosystem.

Microsoft and Meta are building their versions of the metaverse as are companies like Decentraland and Sandbox.

One of the key aspirations of the metaverse is that it should decentralise the internet. Web 2.0 has seen the rise of the social web which has allowed us to connect, share and interact with each other. But it has also given rise to mega power tech companies, the attention economy, privacy issues and data as oil.

The promise of the metaverse or web 3.0 is that this system will to some extent be dismantled. The power will shift from a few giant tech companies into the hands of the users. This means that no one company will own or control it. It will be enabled by blockchain technology and owned by its users.

How will the metaverse impact marketing and communications?

The opportunity for brands in the metaverse is to create richer brand experiences. This is because it will provide a way of not only consuming information but of experiencing it predominantly through AR and VR.

Brands will be able to build virtual stores, sell digital products and populate them with their avatars and virtual influencers to engage their audience.

The metaverse will become another part of an overall marketing strategy. It will fit within a paid and earned media strategy as an additional platform to provide richer brand experiences.

It also presents another way for brands to consider their market. Brands currently operate in a B2B or B2C framework. The new iteration of this will be B2A: Business to Avatar. Brands will need to engage with digital representations of their audience. For this, they will need avatars they can own and control. They could be shop assistants, influencers or brand ambassadors, or even AI-driven chatbots.

Whichever way brands choose to be involved in the metaverse; it will no doubt have the same level of impact on marketing that social media had. As marketers, we should welcome it because of the immersive way in which brands can build relationships with their audience through the metaverse.

Is the metaverse inevitable?

When social media first immerged in the early 2000s, there were many sceptics about the impact it may have on our lives. 20 years later it has become integral to marketing, communications and how we do business.

The same is true of the metaverse, except it won’t take another 20 years to reach the same critical mass. The teens online today will be entering the workforce in the next 5 to 10 years and with them will come a whole new world of expectations around work, play and socialisation. According to Meta, 1 billion users will be populating the metaverse by the end of the decade.

For some of us this is exciting and a brave new future but for others, this seems ridiculous and to some extent, frightening.

No doubt there will be challenges and it may not end up looking exactly as we currently envision it. This should not hold future savvy brands back from considering how they will position themselves in the metaverse. They should want and need it to distinguish themselves from their competitors and build deeper levels of audience engagement.

I’m reminded of the scene in The Matrix where Cypher says to Neo as he’s about the enter the matrix: “Buckle your seatbelt Dorothy, ‘cause Kansas is going bye-bye”.

[1] https://www.statista.com/statistics/293304/number-video-gamers/

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