Coral Cripps
Jul 11, 2023

Is the metaverse dead or is it just under construction?

Weren't we all supposed to be donning goggles and meeting up in virtual cocktail bars in an augmented reality parallel world by now?

Is the metaverse dead or is it just under construction?

In February 2020, when Travis Scott held a virtual concert inside gaming platform Fortnite, almost 28 million people tuned in. There was so much buzz around the metaverse that, a year later, Facebook rebranded to Meta with a goal to help build this virtual environment. 

The concept, received by a divided world still recovering from lockdown-fuelled gloom, catalysed a mad dash by marketers to ensure their spot on the latest hype train. 

Brands across the globe, including Nike, Heineken and H&M, jumped in head-first, launching a variety of activations ranging from NFT fashion shows to pixelated bar hops.

However, fast-forward to 2023 and there’s been a notable decline in interest. 

To a backdrop of reports of widespread redundancies and scaled-back initiatives, headlines that once positioned the metaverse as the “next phase of the internet” have seemingly been cannibalised by reports that now herald generative AI as tech’s next “paradigm shift”. A Wall Street Journal column earlier this year curtly dubbed it the “meh-taverse”.

The collective “metaverse” (which includes virtual worlds accessed through VR and virtual worlds accessed by either browsers or apps) currently has around 520 million active users a month, according to the latest figures from metaverse consulting company Metaversed.

User numbers have increased by only 25 million this year, compared with a rise of around 43 million during the same period in 2022.

One common mistake made by brands at the start of the metaverse trend was a move to enter the space without a clear understanding of its mechanics, goals or audiences.

Andrew Mason, chief media officer at Digitas, says that a slew of companies haven’t actually developed an understanding of how their customers can interact within the metaverse or its potential assets.

“A lot of brands jumped on the coattails of the hype of the metaverse. But what they didn’t do was think about consumers – and we all know that consumers are really at the heart of all of this, right?”

Rosie Copland, strategy director at UNIT9 (which launched its own metaverse advisory group last year), insists that a lapse in metaverse popularity is a result of too many brands trying to milk publicity from “a future concept that still hasn’t been properly defined”. 

“Unfortunately, the metaverse has been given a bad name,” she explains. “Due to the hype, many companies jumped to build ‘first-to-market’ initiatives to get PR headlines, which were really just examples of using tech for tech’s sake.”

Copland summarises the current comedown from the metaverse craze as an opportunity for marketers to re-evaluate their strategies, figure out what isn't working and learn from their shortcomings.

“Everyone rushes to utilise new technologies and then we see a dip where experiments and implementations fail to deliver from early adopters and people pause to evaluate the true benefits and utilities,” she says.

Is a lack of clear definition also to blame?

While Mark Zuckerberg has marketed the metaverse as an “embodied internet” for users to socialise using custom avatars, other tech giants have previously billed it as a different beast. 

Last year, Microsoft launched its Mesh software, an immersive extension of its Teams platform, which enables users to organise avatar-based team meetings and conference calls.

Nvidia’s Omniverse, also released in 2021, enables users to collaboratively work on digital twins and 3D workflows in a shared immersive space. 

And Roblox, now among the world’s biggest gaming platforms, claims to have helped more than 100 brands launch gamified activations in the metaverse.

Listing another problem that marketers have encountered when devising a successful metaverse strategy, Mason says that brands have mistakenly understood the metaverse to be one singular mechanism, as opposed to a term that encompasses “a combination of technologies and themes”. 

“It seems that we don’t really know what the metaverse is,” he says. “There’s a risk for brands at the moment, because they’ve either got to entertain, be of use or inform – and they have to work out what they actually want to be in that space and then allow the technology to help them get there.”

It’s also a sentiment shared by Phil Rowley, head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK, who recently wrote a report to help brands and marketers better understand how to advertise in the metaverse, titled Avoiding the Regretaverse: How Not to Mess Up in the Metaverse.

“There’s been much talk about the fact that the metaverse is over,” he asserts. “But let’s be clear: the metaverse is not over. Only a metaverse narrowly defined and misunderstood is over.”

Rowley circles back to why brands should work to identify the right formats, channels and assets that will best suit their brand positioning and target audience: “Should a low-price supermarket be advertising or building their own version of it in Minecraft? No. But could they find a place to advertise their existing banners as interstitials between mobile games? Or use some kind of loyalty mechanism to help that user get power-ups on a version of Candy Crush? Yes, of course.”

Examples of successful metaverse activations

The key to success for brands activating in the metaverse is to achieve a deep understanding of particular platforms and their audiences – in particular, the community-led mechanics and audiences found within gaming spaces, explains Science Magic Studios’ creative director Sam Richardson.

“Brands that have created authentic experiences for users, rather than just trying to sell products, have achieved the most traction and made the most positive noise,” he says.

Rafe Blandford, chief product officer at Digitas, also suggests that the majority of successful metaverse activations have, in essence, been gaming activations. “There’s no doubt that this [trend] will continue because gaming, with its power to connect and create communities, is one of the biggest drivers of popular culture and entertainment, with audience numbers that will draw the interest of any marketer.”

GEEIQ, a platform that builds metaverse activations for major brands and celebrities, claims it has been behind a series of successful Roblox campaigns, including activations for fashion line Tommy Hilfiger (one of which had 32 million visits) and singer Elton John (above), whose virtual metaverse concert attracted 2.3 million visits, the highest rated in the gaming platform’s history.

Barney Lynch, account director at GEEIQ, says: “Successful brands are leveraging virtual experiences to communicate their brand messaging in an authentic way that resonates with the community. The community ultimately decides what’s a success and what isn’t.”

UK-based shoe brand Clarks has also achieved high engagement levels from a string of its metaverse activations (below). To promote a kids’ footwear line released last year, it launched “Cicaverse”, a gamified Roblox campaign that included an in-game stadium, store and set of virtual wearables inspired by the brand.

According to Tara McRae, Clarks chief marketing officer, the activation generated more than 9.1 million gameplays. She adds that the brand's second metaverse activation in Roblox, “Playprints World”, has already seen over 1.3 million gameplays after launching earlier this year.

McRae says that “doing the right research” and “establishing the right partnerships with developers that understood the space” was key to unlocking the right strategy, claiming that this approach helped the brand to make a link between its main customer base and platform of interest.

“Do the customer research on your target audience and find out where they are,” she advises brands, but warns not to “force the metaverse strategy if their audience is not there”.

Marketing in the metaverse in 2023 and beyond

The view that the metaverse is still very much in “build mode” seems to echo across corners of adland, indicating that brands looking to launch future activations in the metaverse should approach their creative strategy with patience, flexibility and a willingness to restrategise, rather than forming or sticking to any preconceived vision.

Rowley likes to think of the metaverse as the “next evolution, not revolution, in media”, encouraging brands looking to launch a future metaverse campaign to have a “sober, honest and objective conversation with someone with no dog in the fight”.

“Everyone’s going to recommend their own particular tool. You need somebody that’s got an objective viewpoint, or a media or creative agency or any kind of consultative body to give you an objective perspective on all of the options available," he says.

Blandford says that “rescaling and reprioritising” are typical within tech and innovation cycles, stressing that agencies should continue to explore new opportunities with clients at “the intersection between culture and innovation, with immersion, gaming and community all at the same time”.

“New technologies can save time and when used in the right way, they can also help power an exciting new era of creativity,” he says.

Claiming that the “metaverse isn’t going to go away”, Mason believes that it “won’t be what it is today – it will evolve, it will get bigger, it will get greater."

"Brands need to be patient and work out when the right time is," he adds. "It definitely isn’t dead, but it will be something different to what everyone thought, We’re not in a steady state – and I think that’s really exciting."


Campaign UK

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