Metaverse: An ambiguous idea about what our virtual future might look like

Grant Paterson, Head of Gaming at Prism Sport + Entertainment

In May of 2022, our very own Grant Paterson, Head of Gaming, sat down with Ad Forum to explore some of the emerging and future trends in gaming and esports with a particular focus on how the industry might start to migrate over to using the Metaverse.

With so many forms of digital media, and new ones always on the horizon, how do you determine which way of pushing content is the most viable?

How does the boundless framework of the metaverse make it appealing for brands and marketers to get involved in this new form of media?

For brands it is key to understand that ‘the metaverse’ isn’t really a singular place that exists for them to ‘enter’. It is relatively ambiguous idea about what our virtual future might look like. The interpretation of this ‘idea’ varies hugely from tech company to tech company – each of whom have their own proto-metaverse (or virtual walled garden) that they think will be the entry point to this vision of ‘the metaverse’.

The ‘boundlessness’ of it as an idea is both help and hindrance – on the one hand it can be helpful to have a collective term for the gradual fusion of different forms of virtual technology and consumer behaviour in virtual environments. On the other, it oversimplifies the debate around the application of those different technologies to Marketing Communications and misleadingly implies that the ‘Metaverse’ is a ‘place’ for brands to build a ‘presence’, rather than a theory that tries to outline a vision for one potential future to be prepared for.

Brands should instead focus on thinking about the role they can play in their customers overall ‘virtual life’ – be that gaming, streaming, virtual community, commerce, work or identity. Different virtual destinations have unique cultures, behaviours and communities so it is important that marketers take the time to understand, appreciate and respect the places & people (real or virtual) that their customers care about.

Identifying ways that brands can create unique, valuable, playable experience for customers is key and should always be contextualized within the culture of the virtual ecosystem in which it takes place. Creating branded avatars, skins, virtual items or real estate is fine but will only be impactful if it delivers on the needs and expectations of customers within that game, community or virtual world.

Marketing fundamentals still apply above and beyond anything else to all of this – identifying where your audience is spending its time, understanding why and then creating something that adds value to their experience (be it a game, community, content, livestream or virtual world).

What plans, if any, does your agency have to expand its reach into the metaverse?

We try not to think of the ‘Metaverse’ as a singular destination to establish reach within. ‘Metaversal’ style platforms that incorporate these different forms of technology (such as virtual worlds and blockchain in Decentraland or Sandbox) have a vanishingly small number of active users relative to the globally popular, established game platforms like Fornite, Minecraft, Roblox, Genshin Impact, PUBG and Honor of Kings. These games are independent, multi-faceted cultural powerhouses with unique ecosystems, cultures and communities so our time is best spent understanding what draws over a billion people to these platforms and how we can help brands build relationships with them.

Obviously, it’s also important for us to be cognizant of what is possible across relatively new platforms that have ‘Metaversal’ ambitions but at the moment, the more tangible, impactful opportunity for most brands begins in gaming. Gaming is the on-ramp to a wider virtual experience and the starting point for many consumers ‘virtual lives’. So, I think it makes sense both from a strategic and tactical perspective for the majority of our efforts to be concentrated on building the tools, services and capabilities that can deliver transformative brand marketing within these places.

In what ways can the increase in virtual presence lead to more successful campaigns and what would a virtual space allow you to do that traditional media hasn’t?

Given the interactive nature of these virtual spaces, how do you see this affecting the way consumers consume and engage with advertisements?

Firstly, we shouldn’t presuppose that building ‘presence’ in virtual worlds is the right solution for all brands – much depends on consumer demographics and their core virtual behaviours. Many brands focusing on building relationships with audiences who have grown up natively in virtual environments can benefit from establishing a presence within or around these places because consumers increasingly expect brands to be present in the virtual places where they chose to play, socialize, create content and (soon) shop. For younger demographics, much of their identity is inextricably connected to the avatars, friendships and communities they have cultivated in virtual places (predominantly but not exclusively games). So, for brands willing to properly understand the culture and dynamics of these spaces there is a significant opportunity to engage with these consumers in a more intimate, meaningful and participatory way.

Traditional media’s relatively linear format limits the depth of interaction a brand can have with a consumer to (at best) entertainment and (at worst) annoyance. The participatory, immersive nature of gaming (and virtual worlds) enables a greater degree of back-and-forth communication (literally a 1-2-1 conversation in some cases) and greater depth of storytelling than is possible with linear media. But at the same time, this greater potential brings with it higher creative and experiential standards – brands have to spent serious time understanding the culture, mechanics, lore and history of games and their communities before figuring out what they can do to add value to the existing consumer experience.

How do you anticipate the metaverse shaping new forms of storytelling in advertising?

‘The Metaverse’ is a catch-all term for a huge range of different converging technologies and emerging behaviours that are relevant from both a B2B and B2C perspective so we shouldn’t just confine our thinking to just storytelling or entertainment. Some of the most exciting possibilities for brands exist at the convergence of different virtual technologies. Game creation engines, digital twinning and high fidelity visualisation platforms are helping a whole range of companies improve their product design, manufacturing and business operations. Decentralisation technology has the potential to help build more direct, intimate relationships with customers across the brand-product lifecycle. Virtual game worlds offer brands the ability to create more immersive, diverse (and yes) entertaining branded experiences. All of these possibilities (and many others) have the potential to change the shape of brand-consumer relationships and upset traditional ‘storytelling’ dynamics

The key is to spend time figuring out which of these (and the many other) strategic opportunities in virtual are most relevant and impactful for your brand and business. It might well be that using virtual worlds and/or technology to create more engaging brand communications is the right thing to do but it may also be the case that greater strategic impact can be delivered through using virtual technology to transform a brand’s underlying operations or infrastructure. All of these things offer compelling storytelling opportunities but only a small number can deliver truly transformative impact. Figuring out which ones to prioritise is the most important first step.

Grant was speaking to Ad Forum in May 2022 – You can read the article on their website here

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