The metaverse: more brands are entering the virtual world (Getty Images/Yuichiro Chino)
The metaverse: more brands are entering the virtual world (Getty Images/Yuichiro Chino)
A view from Jim Coleman

What is the metaverse and how can brands own it?

Most people have heard of the metaverse. But – with the vast majority of social users not understanding what it actually is – brands clearly still have some explaining to do.

It's been impossible to ignore the use of the word "metaverse" over the past year, and as 2022 predictions start to get announced, it seems like it has become a mainstay in every list. Whatever you think about it or how it's defined or what it means, it's unarguably one of the hottest topics in marketing land at the moment.

Brands are making clear moves in the space; Adidas now has a parcel of land allocated to it in metaversal game world The Sandbox and has just announced a partnership with Coinbase to further its metaverse plans. Already this year, we've seen several fashion and retail brands, from Gucci to Selfridges, launch products and experiences in virtual worlds.

There is a clear shift happening from traditional timelines and grids to new, richer 3D worlds. However, it's understandably a lot for consumers to get their heads around. Recent research undertaken for our annual Think Forward 2022 report found that the majority of social media users globally don't actually understand what the metaverse is.

But brands can have a role to play here, taking people on a journey into this new space.

So what is the metaverse?

For those still playing catch up (it's OK to admit it) the metaverse is an immersive online virtual world incorporating augmented reality, virtual reality and other tech to create an alternative world through which people will live and interact in 3D form.

Today, tech businesses fall into one of two camps in their adoption of metaverse capabilities: first is those who have built platforms from the ground up, such as Decentraland – a collection of 90,601 parcels of land available as NFTs and purchased via cryptocurrency – and The Sandbox – a virtual metaverse where players can play, build, own and monetise their virtual experiences.

The alternative is the existing giants such as Meta (appropriately rebranded from Facebook), which has been developing its own metaverse – in this case, one called Horizon.

How can marketers get involved?

This should be a cast-iron discussion point on every brand's 2022 plan. That's not to say everyone should get involved tomorrow, but marketers should by now be looking to establish how their content, products or services work as part of a metaverse experience, and identifying what value they can add for consumers.

Fashion and lifestyle brands are a natural fit within the metaverse with all the options for users to customise their avatars in this alternative world. Back in September, Vans, for example, created Vans World within Roblox – a space where skaters hang and show off their latest Vans merch, but also skate around, perform tricks and have fun.

Gaming worlds are the perfect way for any brand to take their first steps towards the metaverse, providing an abundance of creative potential through which to connect with users.

How can brands own the space?

The majority of users will lack confidence in the metaverse and be keen to dip their toe in the water and explore what this new medium has to offer. By being one of the first to take audiences on this inaugural journey, acting as a guide in those early days, brands will form a bond that will stand them in good stead.

The key thing here, however, is for brands to lower the barrier to entry and make people's experiences as seamless and free from confusion as possible.

However, it's not only the users who are finding their feet – brands are learning how to operate in this space too. It will be critical for businesses that are operating in the metaverse to understand their audience and how they behave in virtual worlds. This will mean looking beyond existing audience insights gleaned from traditional social media activity and applying a whole new set of criteria based on unique metaverse behaviours.

Targeting, for example, will be completely thrown off course by the presence of code switching, which is when people alter things such as their gender and age within virtual experiences.

What are the next steps for brands?

Launching in the metaverse will not be an easy course to navigate but to ignore it will be to miss the biggest development in consumer behaviour for years. Now is the time for brands to start seeking specific partners to help them navigate this community and understand the new culture, charting a course over the coming months and years.

Experts in immersive experiences and building 3D worlds will come into their own as the metaverse takes off: these new worlds require a specialist production knowledge rather than a tweaking to standard social production.

The metaverse is the next bet that businesses from Facebook to Fortnite are vying to stake their claim in. With the big guns already wading in, the learnings brands can take on board by getting involved now will set them in good stead for the future. It's a new frontier – and one that might just change how we interact with brands forever.

Jim Coleman is the UK chief executive of We Are Social