The Marketer’s (Completely Hype-Free, We Promise) Guide To The Metaverse

Conversations about the Metaverse are everywhere right now. Last year, Travis Scott’s “Astronomical” Crossover with Fortnite won the Grand Prix at Cannes. More recently, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg claimed that the social media giant would one day be known not as a social media company but as a metaverse company. 

If you read the same ad-industry outlets that we do, you’re likely inundated with Twitter threads and roundtable podcasts about the future of the metaverse. Cryptocurrency, social media, NFTs, VR, games, adtech, and music are all laying claim to the nascent space. We recently came across a joke that seemed to hit the nail on the head:

Are we in the midst of some sort of “metaverse bubble”? More importantly, given all these disparate players and data points, it’s fair to ask: what even is the metaverse? And should you care?

Metaverse marketing, very quickly (we promise)

There are a lot of explainers out there about the metaverse — we recommend Matthew Ball’s early, influential essay on the topic, as well as this New York Times explainer. But the quick version is that the metaverse is theoretically a successor to the mobile internet: a massive, decentralized, embodied digital space where avatars can work, play, interact, and, most importantly, spend money.

The comparisons here are easy: The Matrix, but less dystopian; Second Life, but in VR; Ready Player One, but not a video game. Zuckerberg characterizes it as, possibly, a place you pop into via a discrete piece of eyewear, allowing you to pull up an ideal workstation, visit digital meeting places, and then, after work, to play games and watch stuff (movies, comedy, music) with other people. 

The idea has its roots in science fiction, particularly Neal Stephenson’s 1995 cyberpunk novel Snow Crash. Given its origins in sci-fi, there are plenty of dystopian themes at work here, including the looming threat of overreaching megacorporations, widespread alienation and detachment, and the further splintering of reality. But there’s a utopian element at play, too, traceable to the always-open, always-anonymous manifestos of early internet culture: the promise of a new world liberated from the boundaries of meatspace. 

The truth about metaverse marketing

There are a couple of big caveats here. The first is that, technologically, we’re talking about something years or even decades out. As Ball notes in the essay linked above, the infrastructure for millions of people to be online together at once simply doesn’t exist yet. Collectively, we haven’t yet established standards and protocols by which massive companies like, say, Epic and Facebook should create shared spaces. At present, I can’t simply move my identity from one platform to another the same way I can upload the same video to YouTube, Facebook, and TikTok.

The hardware — think Zuckerberg’s seamless, almost invisible VR headset — is a decade away, by his estimation. Additionally, the content — the places and activities that will draw people to the metaverse in the first place — does not exist outside of Fortnite and Roblox. (And again, you can’t move experiences between these two worlds.)

These are, as they say, non-trivial barriers. Marketers have to work with what is available today or what could be built as part of an annual campaign. The metaverse timeline must be placed alongside such century-long human efforts as, say, fighting climate change. Is your CMO willing to wait that long?

“Metaverse marketing” is putting the cart before the horse when the metaverse itself still needs to be built. It’s worth being clear: the excitement we see today around metaverse marketing is speculative. It’s around the technologies and experiences that seem like they are pointing toward the creation of the utopian spaces imagined in formative sci-fi texts. 

Additionally, much of this excitement is happening at the product level. The mere fact that brands are excited about the ability to create a new, more immersive internet in their own image does not mean that people actually want such a thing. It just means that if such a thing is to emerge, brands want to get there first. (Tellingly, in his interview with The Verge, Zuckerberg laments missing out on the mobile internet. It’s clear why he would want a hand in its successor.) 

The appeal of the internet, in its inception, was precisely the opposite: that it was unruly, untamed, lawless. It’s hard to imagine the same with the metaverse as currently envisioned.

Our extremely not-hot take: focus on gaming

Ultimately, we’re neither bullish nor bearish on the prospect of the metaverse. We love videogames and the internet and love helping people navigate these spaces. We’re deeply invested in the way these spaces will change in the months and years to come. We’ve previously helped folks figure out how their passions and businesses intersect with esports and virtual reality. Both of these spaces felt diffuse and had a dizzying amount of hype, especially earlier this decade. 

“Metaverse marketing,” in other words, is a repackaging of esports and VR, wrapped in with a few other technologies: in-game advertising, in-game events, branded cosmetics, massively multiplayer experience design. In gaming, the purchase and resale of digital goods and skins has thrived for well over a decade. 

The pandemic, too, played a role, in that it accelerated our acceptance of digital interactions as an outright substitute for IRL ones (see the rise of synchronous movie watching and the explosive popularity of Animal Crossing: New Horizons). We find the excitement around this space, well, exciting — we’re big believers in play and interactivity, and love the way reframing it outside the context of “video games” helps people see its potential. 

But we also think it’s worth admitting: what you are saying with “metaverse marketing” is just marketing in and with gaming. The term itself is a repackaging. Like any piece of jargon, it has its uses: as a shorthand for a group of technologies, as a way to discuss the speculative endstate of those technologies, as a way to get game- or internet-averse audiences excited. But in other contexts, we can use more immediate and time-tested terminology to talk more concretely about possible marketing activations and trends.

So, what should you do?

Make sure you know what you want to do. 

If your goal is to do something flashy, and immediate ROI isn’t of paramount importance, then “metaverse marketing” is worth considering. By all means, create a digital space in which people can learn about your products and brand, activate cross-media partnerships, and find out what happens. For our part, we’re intrigued by more guerrilla and low-key activations, like Wendy’s (in)famous Fortnite stunt. (Briefly: a Wendy-like character attacked not other characters but freezers, to draw attention to the company’s never-frozen beef.) 

It’s worth noting that many gaming platforms are not self-serve. Getting the game’s developer to work with you is not guaranteed. There are often no metrics for activities inside of gaming ecosystems. And contrary to the vision of the metaverse, what happens in one game world cannot simply be moved elsewhere. 

On the other hand, if your goal is to connect with self-described gamers or to connect with your audience through the medium and shared interest of video games, then more immediate and time-tested means are available to you. You could dabble with Reddit or Tiktok, create a content hub for your audience, or, heck, make a game

And if you need help deciding? Drop us a line