On 6 May 1937, a gargantuan hydrogen zeppelin called the Hindenburg was floating gracefully in to land over Manchester Township, New Jersey. The world’s media had gathered to watch it arrive. An international spectacle, it offered the public a glimpse of the future of air travel: innovative, transportive, exciting.
To this day no one is sure why, but moments later the Hindenburg exploded. Burning, the airship crashed to the floor, with the gathered media capturing images for the ages.
In the aftermath, they went on to write about the end of the zeppelin era. The design was flawed, they said. Hydrogen gas was too dangerous. This was no longer a viable option of transport.
But note what didn’t happen. No one declared all air travel unsafe. The aviation industry was unbowed. People continued to use commercial airliners to travel the world. Fortunately, because one thing was well understood: there is a difference between a flawed part of an industry versus its more successful whole.
And I think there’s an important lesson for marketers here.
Conflating the part with the whole
What does this have to do with the metaverse? Currently, some commentators seem to be fixated on the apparent decline of the metaverse. But are they missing the bigger picture?
We’ve all seen the articles on low attendance in virtual environments and talk of NFT collapses. Some of this analysis is accurate. The notion of a second virtual life, established in popular culture through popular titles such as Ready Player One or Tron, now looks unlikely to materialise.
Before the metaverse, there was gaming
Omnicom Media Group UK was motivated to write its latest report, Avoiding The Regretaverse: How Not To Mess Up In The Metaverse, as a course correction against the tendency to focus on one narrow aspect of the metaverse – the promise of virtual shopping malls where we downloaded virtual products. The reality is that there is a much bigger opportunity. It is the metaverse’s antecedent: gaming.
Venture capitalist company Andreessen Horowitz (known for its heavy investment in metaverse and Web3 projects) has put it well, stating: “The metaverse will be built by game companies, using game technologies [...]. The games industry has already solved many of the problems that need to be solved to create the metaverse”.
Andreessen Horowitz knew metaverse opportunities would rely on the technological infrastructure provided by gaming companies. But as the dream of a virtualised parallel existence faded, we now see the bigger truth: gaming and its infrastructure is the real opportunity.
Gaming will soon hit three billion players worldwide, with the industry expected to reach a quarter of a trillion dollars this decade. Its maturation as a mass media was driven not only by the jaw-dropping sophistication of titles, but also the rise of mobile gamers.
Hypercasual games – mobile apps with simple and addictive mechanics to engage users, like Candy Crush – are now available to 10 billion smartphone users around the globe.
Given the gargantuan reach of gaming, as a natural consequence, the audience has come to represent a wide cross-section of society. In the UK, the average age of a gamer is around 35.
Globally, Candy Crush has around 250 million monthly active users – but two-thirds are female. So much for the cliche of teenage boys in their bedrooms.
Naturally the messaging opportunity for marketers is immense: everything from standard IAB banner integrations and streaming sponsorships to midlevel interstitials and influencer sponsorship. Gaming is as big, and has as many targeting opportunities, as any other media. It has as much right to exist as a line item on a media plan as TV, digital and outdoor.
But there are those who, in dismissing the disproportionately famous but narrow VR-based metaverse, may also risk dismissing gaming too.
To prevent that, we need to indulge in some crafty semantics.
Reframe or rename
We can solve this in two ways.
First, reframing. We can capitalise on the fame of the erstwhile label by redirecting marketers’ attention to the opportunity of targeting three billion gamers on earth.
We should reframe the metaverse, not as a virtual world experienced via 3D technology, but as a network inhabited by 40% of the world’s population and experienced through 2D screens – TVs, PCs, consoles, smartphones and tablets. In short, an augmentation and outgrowth of the internet.
Second, renaming. Maybe we abandon the word "metaverse" altogether, as Roblox has very publicly just done. Instead, substitute in the word "gaming" and then couch our media solutions in terms of channels currently on the plan.
Talk of insertions and integrations, and spots and formats. Use the lingua franca of marketing, rather than pepper our conversation phrases like "non-fungible" and "persistent synchronous environments" – which give the impression that gaming and the metaverse are new media channels requiring new forms of advertising.
Either route would work, but ultimately, we cannot let the apparent failure of the metaverse in its narrowest of definitions blight a media channel as vast as gaming for the want of better labelling.
One last word on airships. Recently, with the technological improvement of the intervening years (and as a response to climate change) there is talk of zeppelins making a comeback as a stately alternative to aeroplanes. It seems a century later, a use case has presented itself.
Perhaps we might say the same about VR and NFTs: one day their time might come. But for now, it’s all about gaming. Whether you think it’s a part of the metaverse, or apart from the metaverse, gaming is the channel that could change marketing for the decades to come. Don’t lose sight of it, even if the metaverse slinks out of our eyeline.
Phil Rowley is head of futures at Omnicom Media Group UK