The great paradigm shifts in technology almost never materialise like meteors. They arrive by stealth through a series of incremental changes until, lo and behold, our world has changed.
So it was with the internet and so it will be, Meta asserts, with the metaverse. Yet so much uncertainty still surrounds this nascent concept: about what it is now, what it can become and, crucially, how brands and agencies can make the most of this seminal opportunity.
Myths of the metaverse: what exactly is it?
You can ask a dozen people and get a dozen different definitions. Why? Because “that’s how early we are”, according to Lindsey McInerney, co-founder and CEO of blockchain entertainment company Sixth Wall, speaking at Meta’s EMEA Agency Summit 2022.
One thing the metaverse isn’t – or at least not just – is virtual reality. It’s so much more than that. “We genuinely believe that the metaverse is the next big computing platform,” said Nick Pestell, director, head of industry for UK agency at Meta.
McInerney believes the metaverse is “a synchronous, persistent real-time and 3D internet”. Martin Harbech, Meta’s group director of retail and ecommerce, put it like this: “A natural continuation of how we all interact with content and with each other. We like to think of it as digital spaces.” While acknowledging that no one knows quite how the metaverse will look in a decade’s time, Harbech set out some guiding principles:
Presence The feeling of actually being together, even when we’re apart, which doesn't happen with a 2D screen.
Persistence An environment that you can log in and out of; an ongoing world.
Interoperability Just as people dial into a Zoom call from different devices, with different levels of fidelity, this will be no different.
Horse play: how Stella Artois made the running in the metaverse
Whatever the metaverse may be further down the line, for now it’s “about media and entertainment – things that bring people together,” according to Lindsey McInerney, who also said that she has “never been more excited about the future of the internet”.
As global head of tech and innovation for drinks giant AB InBev, in 2021 McInerney ran a successful and innovative campaign that took beer brand Stella Artois into the world of cryptocurrency and digital gaming.“If you abstract the idea of what AB InBev is away from the idea of beer, they actually bring people together to be entertained,” said McInerney.
Stella Artois is a long-time sponsor of premium sporting events, such as the Wimbledon Championships and horse racing. It had also created the ‘Life Artois’ campaign that McInerney describes as a “creamy dreamscape … showing people this Cote d’Azur life that they can have in experiencing Stella Artois”.
Stella Artois partnered with Zed Run, a crypto horse-racing platform where users buy, sell, own and race digital horses. “The Zed Run community was hankering for new, cool places to discover with their horses,” explained McInerney. “We also released a three-dimensional race track so that people could fully immerse themselves in the Life Artois.”
Five customised, branded skins were created and 50 digital horses were auctioned over five days, with almost $1m spent by Zed Run users. As well as the 100m media impressions in the first seven days, there was significant incremental brand value, demonstrated by the spend for the horses that had Stella Artois branding being 40% higher than for those that did not.
“Our hypothesis was that people were willing to pay more for something exclusive, that excites them and adds value to their community,” said McInerney.
Give back control: why user freedom is key to the success of AR
Augmented reality is already a hugely significant tool for brands. Over 700M people use AR effects across Meta apps and services every month.
“We’re moving away from something that might be seen as a fad or a bit shiny,” said Zehra Chatoo, connections planner at Meta, “towards something really credible when incorporated within long-term ideas.”
A research partnership between Meta and the University of Oxford highlighted the value of spatial audio in the future of AR. Different AR experiences were tested, some with no audio, some with mono sound and some with sound sources all around the user to create an immersive experience. Dan Moller, creative strategist and Meta’s AR guru said: “Spatial audio blew away all the metrics, especially for branded experiences, with product desirability and intent to buy off the charts.”
Moller explained how AR was used successfully for the trailer for the Tom Cruise movie Top Gun: Maverick, with the aim of attracting a younger demographic to a film sequel that was landing 36 years after the original. Research showed indifference among the young towards the movie and, indeed, towards the 60-year-old Cruise. “But they did care about fighter jets,” explained Moller. “They thought they were cool. So we built a gamified trailer experience where people could dive in [to a fighter let]. It had really great performance, especially driving intent to see the film. So it really got picked up in a difficult-to-move metric.”
A partnership between Vodafone and Wimbledon offered an AR experience where users could see themselves on Centre Court with a Vodafone-branded tennis racket. “We usually talk in terms of seconds of time spent in a video, but in this case, it was minutes,” said Moller.
Moller urges brands not to overthink the use of augmented reality. “Sometimes the simpler, the better,” he said. “Keep it straightforward because people’s time is precious. Think of it as a nonlinear narrative – how does the user move through the experience to uncover the information you want them to uncover and how can you motivate them?
“We need to control things a bit less. Giving someone the agency to interact, we're handing over a bit of control – let’s just lean into it, be playful and fun.”
How to make the metaverse more welcoming
According to Lauren Ingram, CEO at Women of Web3, the metaverse needs to be demystified in order to make it a more diverse and inclusive place.
She said: “A lot of this is about breaking down jargon. We’re hearing a lot from women that they’re intimidated by this whole scene because it's so jargon heavy. For example, what’s an NFT? Non fungible token but that doesn't help anyone. It’s a digital asset that you can buy and sell on the internet on the blockchain.
“Metaverse and Web3 get used interchangeably but they are subtly different – the metaverse is this immersive, persistent version of the internet, associated a lot with VR and AR. Web3 refers to blockchain-based technologies like blockchain itself, NFTs and crypto.”
Ingram urged the industry to have “awkward conversations” about fairness, inclusion and diversity.
“We’ve got a diversity problem,” she added. “Who’s working on this stuff in agencies? You might pull someone from legal who’s obsessed with gaming or a guy – inevitably a guy – who trades crypto. Suddenly you have a team of six guys building something significant for the agency or for your clients.”
Lauren Chester, head of tech projects at BYTE/Dept, joined the jargon-busting, explaining the concept of a smart contract. She said: “I was in a metaverse workshop talking about an NFTs strategy. The client was surprised that it would be a developer not a lawyer who would write smart contracts because a smart contract is a piece of code that enables an NFT to live on the blockchain.”
Stay true to yourself: some dos and don’ts for getting metaverse-ready
The metaverse might seem like a scary prospect to some, but it’s important not to lose sight of what you do best.
“If the metaverse is the future of the internet,” said Lindsey McInerney, “all of the great skills that your companies and your agencies have been acquiring over the decades, all apply here, because this becomes the future of direct-to-consumer commerce, sponsorships, licensing and experiential.
“What brands will do well in some of these early [metaverse] experiences is parallel to what they do in reality. If you're not a brand that’s known for being artful then it's maybe not the greatest idea [to start now].”
Lauren Chester urged fellow agencies to “be the people that are pushing the technology and finding the, ‘oh my god I can't believe that's even possible’. Our role is to be educators and to lead our brands into the metaverse in authentic ways.”
Lauren Ingram added: “These new experiences aren’t going to replace what’s gone before, but will be in addition – they’re new ways for people to interact online. When social media was nascent, a bakery or an insurance company wouldn't know why they might need an Instagram page but these things are now part of a brand's geography.”