We take a look at how brands can reap the benefits of the metaverse while managing the possible risks
24 February 2023
Being an early adopter means putting your head above the parapet. To seize the opportunities on offer in the metaverse, marketers must be smart, savvy and well-prepared to steer clear of the potential pitfalls.
The technology powering the metaverse is evolving rapidly and there are limited guardrails for brands to rely on. These are uncharted waters, and as such, marketers must lay careful groundwork to safeguard the value of their brand. It’s also vital to protect audiences from the kind of safety concerns they may already face online – but which are taken to a more immersive level in the metaverse.
"There will be risks and challenges, many of which can be anticipated," says Aaron Hoffman, director of international marketing, Reality Labs at Meta. "We hope that lessons from previous technological advances can be learned, and that the rules, standards and norms that will govern the metaverse can be developed in tandem with the technologies themselves."
Problems in our physical society manifest on the internet now, and Hoffman warns that this will inevitably recur on any new system or platform. “To help keep people safe on our platforms, we must give them tools to take action, or get help, if they see or experience something they’re not comfortable with,” he explains.
Building the metaverse is a huge collective effort, and it's the shared responsibility of everyone involved to help tip the scales the right way. "Technology isn't good or bad in itself,” Hoffman says. “People use it as they see fit – and misuse it as well," he adds. "We must create thoughtful rules and put guardrails in place as the metaverse develops, to maximise its potential for good."
So, what are the key pitfalls to be mindful of when engaging with the nascent metaverse – and what steps should marketers be taking today to prepare for them?
Sponsored by Meta
By Albert Abello Lozano, head of automation, Treatwell
How to navigate the potential pitfalls of the metaverse
While it can be tempting to ride the wave of a particular trend to get involved with the metaverse quickly, pursuing short-term smash-and-grab opportunities without the proper strategic planning could risk longer-term brand damage.
"I understand why brands are excited about the monetisation opportunity of NFTs," for instance, says Jonny Shaw, chief strategy officer at VCCP New York. He gives the example of Nike's new collaborative digital space, Swoosh, which will enable consumers to design their own digital sneakers.
But Shaw suggests that the NFT gold rush could backfire for brands that haven't considered the role they can play in the overall marketing plan. "Be strategic and thoughtful, and don't let vanity get in the way," he advises. "Don't end up with a castle made of sand, encoded on the blockchain forever."
"You don't want 'zombie NFTs' as a constant reminder of what the brand didn't fulfil for you," agrees Nick Pringle, SVP and executive creative director at R/GA. "The blockchain is like this elephant that hangs around. Be cautious about experimenting without properly following through, so there isn't a lingering part of your brand just sitting there."
Brands would be well advised to keep the specific community they want to engage and its unique qualities at the very centre of their decision making.
Don’t damage your brand for short-term gain
Sponsored by Meta
Consider the real-world impact of virtual events
The metaverse is a collection of virtual spaces, but there are real people behind the avatars and brands must consider the real-world implications of their activity. Don't let the immersive appeal of new technology lure your brand into courting controversy in a way you'd never risk in real life.
"It's experimental, but also very public and hotly scrutinised," says Alex Fenton, strategist at DNCO. "Leaping without looking will come back to bite you. Brands should try new things, but not blindly. Failures in the metaverse can still be punished in the physical world."
Virtual influencers and AR celebrities are on the rise, for instance, but it’s dangerous to assume that just because they’re digital replicas their words and actions – and things they represent – can’t cause real-world damage. In recent months, online communities have hit back at everything from insensitive commentary to cultural appropriation.
"Concepts that are well understood in the physical world manifest differently in the metaverse,” explains Fenton. “This is a potential banana skin for the naive, and it's also a lesson in doing your research."
There are many ways to engage with the metaverse, from a native activation inside an existing platform to a fully bespoke build. If marketers jump in too hastily to claim territory in this fast-developing world, it’s easy to miss the mark. At best, you end up with a poor user experience – at worst, lasting reputational damage to the brand.
Shaw at VCCP cautions against designing interactive experiences without bringing the right specialists on board. For instance, it’s a popular approach to create mini-games to promote a particular brand or product – but beware of putting product placement over user experience.
"There are lots of mistakes being made in this space by clients and agencies who don't know what they're doing when it comes to interactive entertainment design," he says. "Work with experts, or at least observe what's already popular. There are millions of professionals who do know what they're doing, and they should be brought into the conversation."
Like any successful marketing venture, it's about knowing your audience – and engaging with them in a meaningful way. "Brands that get it right understand communities, and the ones that get it wrong just slap their logo all over everything," adds R/GA's Nick Pringle. "People are quick to tear down brands that don't add value to the space. So, always ask yourself: are you being additive, rather than exploitative?"
Put experience design over product placement
Build more diverse and inclusive environments
At its worst, the internet can be a breeding ground for prejudice and intolerance. One opportunity for brands to be additive is to help build virtual environments where diverse communities can thrive. “The metaverse could be an amazing leveller to make brand touchpoints more universal, open and inclusive than ever,” says Fenton at DNCO.
Meta avatars alone have more than 1 quintillion attribute combinations, from skin tones to facial shapes, plus assistive devices like hearing aids and wheelchairs. “The metaverse gives our identities more physicality and room for expression,” adds Fenton. “There's a huge opportunity for brands to use this to their advantage through more creative approaches to things like avatars. But why do we feel constrained by four limbs, two eyes and a nose when the sky isn't even the limit? Form, function and physics are restraints of the physical world, after all."
For Aaron Hoffman at Meta, the metaverse has the potential to drive social and economic progress that goes far beyond the virtual world. “We're at a critical early stage of its development,” he says. “Done well, it could be a positive force for inclusion and equity, bridging some of the divides that exist today.
“We can think of this process as developing a system of governance for the metaverse. This mustn’t be shaped by tech companies, like Meta, on their own – but developed openly with a spirit of cooperation between the private sector, lawmakers, civil society, academia and the people who will ultimately use these technologies.”■
Learn more about business opportunities in the metaverse here.
— Aaron Hoffman, Meta
"There will be risks and challenges,
many of which can be anticipated."