Bondee has experienced an impressive surge in popularity, with over two million downloads just two weeks after its debut on Apple's App Store and Google Play at the start of 2023.
According to Data.ai, Bondee topped the charts for weekly downloads in several countries, including Singapore, the Philippines, Thailand, Malaysia, and Taiwan, during the final week of January.
Bondee claims to be a metaverse, but it more closely resembles a simulation game from the early 2000s. The app allows users to socialise with each other through their digital avatars, which they can style with different hairstyles, clothing, footwear, and accessories.
Socialising activities include lounging in chairs, petting their pets, and standing around on the home page.
For example, users can leave notes for friends who are offline and visit their virtual rooms to do the same. In addition, players can also participate in activities such as through the "sailing" feature, where users can explore unfamiliar universes to meet friends beyond their circle or enter private chats with their friends' avatars and go into "party mode" together.
Despite its rapid growth, the app has encountered several challenges. Users have raised concerns about privacy following rumours of a data leak, which Metadream, the app's creator, has denied.
In addition, reports linking Bondee to a Chinese developer have fueled these concerns. Users threatened to uninstall the app after learning about plans to introduce non-fungible tokens (NFTs), prompting Metadream to backtrack.
In contrast to the early days of the pandemic when Animal Crossing dominated the scene, Bondee's journey has been turbulent.
Michael Patent, founder and president of Culture Group, predicts like Animal Crossing, Axie Infinity and the social networking app BeReal, Bondee will likely be gone just as quickly as it came onto the scene.
He says the critical metric for Bondee will be their 30-day retention and engagement numbers.
More importantly, he suggests that when most brands get around to understanding Bondee and developing a meaningful creative concept, the game could lose 90% of its user base, which could no longer be showing up.
"Brands should first and foremost be concerned about whether Bondee as a platform offers real value to its userbase and who are the primary target audiences anyway? It has been geared towards Gen Zs but designed and built on Millennial interests," Patent explains to Campaign Asia-Pacific.
"The value proposition is unclear, and brands should be wary of jumping on Bondee with a FOMO-based strategy, as brands did with Web3 last year."
Cedric Wceke, the regional PR lead at Circles.Life has played Bondee. He says speed is the essence of most of what marketers do, and the 'early adopter/mover advantage' term gets thrown around rather liberally here.
He says he prefers a hold-and-assess approach to Bondee, despite the immense opportunities for brands to explore potential collaborations across uncharted waters through rapid advances in digital and programmatic advertising avenues.
"While it can be tempting to break new ground in exciting collaborations and partnerships that might move the needle creatively and commercially, there needs to be measurable brand strategic alignment leading to impact before brands get involved with any new social networking platform," Wceke tells Campaign Asia-Pacific, adding that these are his personal opinions and do not represent his employers' views.
"This is all the more relevant for a relatively-untested platform with offerings amid perpetual flux and evolution. As a result, I do anticipate significant challenges for brands in ensuring justifiable and measurable campaign metrics if they take the plunge prematurely."
Shn Juay, chief marketing officer of Web3 Gaming for iCandy and Storms B2B at iCandy Interactive cautions brands should be careful when partnering with apps that have privacy concerns.
"I recommend that brands thoroughly review the app's data privacy policies and measures to ensure no sensitive information is compromised. If there are doubts, brands should carefully weigh the potential benefits and risks of partnering with the app," Juay explains to Campaign Asia-Pacific.
Brand safety red flag?
Users direct their characters' play while socialising in Bondee, a cross between simulation games and an existing metaverse.
However, when the app attempted to introduce Web3-friendly metaverse elements, users quickly rebelled, calling it the following "crypto Ponzi scheme like Axie Infinity.
Some users have also claimed that Bondee mishandled their credit card information, resulting in unauthorised bank transfers after they installed the app.
Metadream, a Singapore-based tech firm, has publicly stated that Bondee does not collect users' financial information or request access to permissions on their devices beyond what is necessary.
However, Wceke believes that ensuring a safe and secure experience is the responsibility of multiple parties across the ecosystem rather than solely that of Bondee and Metadream.
Ensuring a safe and secure experience begins from Bondee and its regulators' end, with calls for more excellent education and awareness necessary to ensure complete transparency and accountability in collaboration.
"Brands who decide to partner with Bondee regardless of scale or capacity, i.e. content or commercial, before extending towards end users who ultimately exercise the right as gatekeepers of their information as a topline level of safeguard," explains Wceke.
"Beyond Metadream's recent refutation against vehement allegations surrounding claims of financial information misuse, where it has also come out strongly to assure the general public of its commitment towards safeguarding user information, there is foremost a need for any prospective brand to revisit and understand the business value and needs."
For example, Wecke says they can use the KARMA model - Known, Additive, Rare, Matching, and Attractive - as suitable gauges.
Aside from creative and commercial impact, brand regulatory personnel will also be required to assess and determine the reputability of Metadream as a parent company and its affiliates when juxtaposed against their brand values - will any media or social traction of the collaboration positively/negatively impact their brand
Brands should also consider the viability and longevity of any collaboration at the current stage of Bondee's meteoric rise without a clear roadmap from Metadream regarding future additions.
The originality of content produced, whether digital or physical, and whether there might be any threats or brand health risks due to copyright infringements or sensitivities due to undercurrents should also be a factor.
Juay argues that for the claim on the "crypto Ponzi scheme", people are probably upset because they got burnt and lost their investments when the "play-to-earn" game tokenomics crashed.
She explains that this doesn't mean all Web3 games offer a monetisation model like "play-to-earn".
"It may also be possible for Bondee to introduce Web3 metaverse elements via blockchain implementations that enhance gamers' experience, such as actual ownership of digital assets in the game and making Bondee avatars interoperable," adds Juay.
"Users' claims on Bondee mishandling their credit card information are just claims until proven true. Brands considering working with an app that has faced backlash for introducing questionable features should proceed cautiously and avoid in-game features requiring payment transactions."
Patent points out Bondee is a slightly nuanced take on the same Web2 games most millennials have played for years. "Adding a Web3 element seems unnecessary, given the lack of genuine community surrounding the game."
The mystery around Metadream
It appears Metadream is not only based in Singapore but also in China. One of its directors is a Chinese national who reportedly also serves as the CEO of a Chinese news aggregator.
Given the concerns over data privacy and links to China, should brands demand Metadream take more measures to reassure users that their data is not being accessed or shared with the Chinese government or other entities?
The lack of information about the makers of this game should be cause for concern for both brands and fans alike, notes Patent.
Brands must take a crucial step back and determine several factors before going down the rabbit hole of making demands or accusations based potentially on speculation or fear-mongering, explains Wcecke.
He says these include understanding the specifics of the targeted audiences, where potential ads will be displayed, the type of content to be associated with, and the varying levels of sensitivities and ramifications that might follow.
"While Metadream and brands are undertaking key measures to safeguard user information, it is noteworthy to observe how the scam and fraud landscape is ever-evolving," says Wecke.
"Therefore, the more significant question to put forward here is the alignment across all stakeholders involved to constantly update their user protection education measures to remain relevant with the nefarious modus operandi of insidious parties and keep them at bay."
However, Juay argues it may be speculative that a partnership with a China-linked company would result in data being accessed or used for nefarious purposes.
"If a brand has such concerns and still wishes to engage with the company, it should perform due diligence to ensure user data is treated responsibly. It should also request that the developers take all necessary measures to safeguard user data," explains Juay.