Digital Essays 2022: The metawhat? – by UM’s James Dutton

With an impending recession, marketers need to identify the potential the metaverse holds for brands, writes UM Worldwide’s James Dutton

By James Dutton, regional digital director, UM Worldwide

Picture the scene; it is 1992 and Whitney Houston topped the charts with her hit I Will Always Love You. It is also the year that I – then a floppy haired teenager – started university and read about the future in Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson. This is when the world first heard of the term ‘metaverse’.

“Hiro’s not actually here at all. He’s in a computer-generated universe that his computer is drawing onto his goggles and pumping into his earphones. In the lingo, this imaginary place is known as the Metaverse. Hiro spends a lot of time in the Metaverse. It beats the U-Stor-It.”

Neal Stephenson, Snow Crash (1992).

Flash-forward 30 years later. This forgotten term from a dystopian future, ‘metaverse’, is the hottest thing for marketers in 2022. Marketers are like cultural magpies – we always look for the next shiny new thing. When we speak about marketing, it is hard to avoid the metaverse. On the other hand, it is rare to hear of consumers doing the same. When it comes to consumers, we hear radio silence. It is important to understand what is going on here.

Is the hype real?

Let me start by stating that ‘metaverse’ is a terrible term for this megatrend. This is important because naming mistakes can reduce our field of vision for an innovation that is predicted to transform consumer experiences over the coming years. For instance, we coined the term ‘cyberspace’ in the early 90’s but that did not age well. Earlier this year, Apple trademarked ‘RealityOS’. It would be interesting to see what they have in store for the future.

Looking into Google Trends interest over time, we can see that there was no search volume until Facebook changed its name to Meta. However, the name change was followed by a spike in interest for a few weeks. Over the last few months, Meta’s search interest has dwindled to a trickle. It was the same with e-commerce.

The metaverse is trending more than ever, but is the hype real? 

Marketers face an enormous challenge today as the ongoing desire to do something cutting-edge, exciting and award-winning is undeniable. Far too many experts have used the rinse-and-repeat formula of describing the metaverse as a virtual avatar world where ‘legs are optional’. The hard truth is that the metaverse is a digital distraction, though most people do not want to accept it. There are many popular virtual worlds which are being talked about but are not accessible or have no users. Consider Decentraland; it is known to be one of the metaverse’s biggest players. However, it averages fewer than 650 active users, and it is certainly not a viable tactical platform choice today.

The metaverse needs further improvement and enhancement before we consider investing in it. At present, we are expecting a global recession – probably one that is limited to developed western markets. Even if the GCC economy remains unscathed, those of us working with global brands are likely to feel a budgetary pinch. David Ogilvy once said, “Your role is to sell. Don’t let anything distract you from the sole purpose of advertising.” During the foreseeable future, we need to create balanced plans that can aid a brand’s growth and grow brands with innovative ideas and budgets. It is safe to say that now is not the right time to invest in virtual property in Decentraland.

Leveraging the metaverse for the real world

It is not all doom and gloom in the new universe. While we may have been distracted by the term ‘metaverse’, there are amazing extended reality (XR) spaces that have proven successful for brands. One of these is the oft-forgotten territory of gaming. As a parent of two pre-teen boys, I can attest to the time spent on the iPad in gaming. The virtual worlds of Minecraft and Roblox already provide an immersive virtual experience without the need for VR headsets. Their 8-bit-style graphics take nothing away from the overall experience. This month, Roblox published a report on digital fashion which stated that 70 per cent of Generation Z get their inspiration on real-world fashion from their avatar fashion choices. This reiterates that the virtual world plays a significant role in the real world.

The opportunity for advertising and marketing experiences in the metaverse is still in its infancy. It has taken the internet 30 years to go from flat, static HTML to today’s vast digital economy. 

One future-facing example is Wubud, a virtual country being developed by Paul Walsh in Canada. The early previews are impressive, taking us well beyond the limited projects shared earlier.

You can expect virtual experiences to take years to evolve as the virtual worlds are only just beginning to hatch. We are at the cusp of the next wave of digital disruption; it is time to explore ways to futureproof consumer experiences.