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  • February 27, 2023
  • By Linda Pophal, business journalist and content marketer

Marketing’s New Reality: The Metaverse

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Artificial intelligence. Machine learning. Virtual reality. Augmented reality. Mixed reality. ChatGPT. These are just a few of the many new technologies that are confronting marketers and literally all professions today.

The opportunities can be both exciting and overwhelming. The implications are being compared to the advent of the internet—and we all know how dramatically that changed both our personal and professional lives.

In truth, though, these new technologies and the potential of the metaverse—or virtual world—might be even more dramatic.

How prepared are marketers to step into this new reality and leverage its opportunities to meet customer needs while prospecting for new customers? The answer varies, of course, but already a number of practical use cases and best practices are emerging.

Barton Goldenberg, president of ISM, has assembled on his website a metaverse resource center, including more than 150 use cases of how companies are using the metaverse for sales, marketing, customer service, and training, along with some other uses.

These use cases aren’t limited to traditional retailers or entertainment firms. They run the gamut, from retailers like Warby Parker to defense contractors like Lockheed Martin and everything in between.

ISM’s extensive catalog of metaverse use cases clearly illustrates that the metaverse isn’t the future; already, marketers are leveraging technology like virtual, augmented, and mixed reality to engage customers and prospects. These technologies can work together to create truly immersive experiences:

  • Virtual reality immerses users in a virtual world.
  • Augmented reality introduces virtual elements to a user’s actual physical setting.
  • Mixed reality lets users interact with both virtual and physical elements in the same setting.

These are concepts that might be new to some marketers, but they’re not new to gamers—or marketers who might also be gamers! Digital game creators were early adopters of metaverse-related technology and continue to be on the cutting edge as they compete to attract and retain the attention of gamers.

But, as Goldenberg points out, there are a wide range of use cases illustrating how marketing and customer service professionals are leveraging the metaverse to make connections and enable interactions for delivering information, generating sales, providing service and support, conducting training, and more.

METAVERSE: WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

“One of the main attractions of the metaverse is its ability to create a truly immersive experience for users,” says Garit Boothe, who is CEO and founder of Digital Honey, a financial company, and is an SEO agency owner, marketing consultant, and entrepreneur.

This is especially true for virtual and augmented reality, he says, “which can be used to create incredibly realistic and engaging digital environments.” Marketers, Boothe says, “can leverage these technologies to capture their audiences’ attention and lead them through an interactive journey that is more engaging than traditional media channels.”

Marketers are already finding, and implementing, practical applications through the metaverse:

  • Retailers can use virtual reality to provide real-world shopping experiences. Shoppers can try on clothes, experiment with makeup, see how a couch will look in their living room, and more.
  • Event planners can offer immersive virtual events through the metaverse, several steps up from Zoom and the widely reviled “Zoom fatigue.” Attendees can participate in presentations and breakout sessions and engage in one-on-one conversations with other attendees.
  • Customers can take advantage of product demonstrations and actually try out new products themselves or get real-time assistance with issues they might be having, guided by customer service avatars.

The metaverse offers opportunity not only for increased customer engagement but also to reach a much broader audience in a more impactful way. Examples abound:

  • IKEA’s virtual reality app brings customers into a virtual store setting and allows them to see how their purchases might actually look in their homes.
  • Ulta and Sephora allow customers and prospects to try before they buy, virtually seeing what the products will look like on them, as they would in a physical store’s dressing room. (Sephora has reported a 40 percent increase in sales and a 300 percent increase in customer engagement since launching this capability.)
  • Hyundai allows those in the market for a car to virtually explore a vehicle and take it for a test drive.
  • Apple introduced the iPhone 12 in a virtual product launch where customers could check out the new phone.
  • McDonald’s opened a virtual restaurant, allowing customers not only to explore the restaurant setting, but also to interact with its brand characters. (McDonald’s reported a 15 percent increase in sales.)

While “metaverse” is the term most frequently used by the media, and which Mark Zuckerberg quickly adopted in rebranding his company as Meta, those in the industry are more likely to refer to these examples as “virtual worlds,” Goldberg maintains. There isn’t just one metaverse; there are many, some more exhaustive and ambitious than others, he adds.

Goldenberg points to South Korea’s massive undertaking to re-create Seoul online as a virtual world where users will be able to take their avatars to tax offices, access youth counseling, and read e-books as the city embarks on a three-year effort to expand its public services. The estimated completion date is 2026. It’s a very practical illustration of how the metaverse does indeed offer a virtual world where people can interact with each other and engage in transactions that they might otherwise have done in the physical world.

METAVERSE CHALLENGES

Opportunities for the metaverse in marketing abound—but so do the potential challenges. One of the biggest of them is that many marketers are finding it difficult to fully get their arms, and heads, around the possibilities and decide how they can jump in. Then there are related concerns about cost, bandwidth, and the infrastructure to support this new channel.

A closely related challenge is convincing the CEO and other top executives that these investments make sense. Gen Z and Gen Y are the cohorts most likely to embrace the promise of the metaverse, Goldenberg says, but they’re not the people primarily populating the C-suite, at least not yet.

Goldenberg has had a lot of experience explaining the metaverse and its potential to executive audiences. He says he likes to approach it from the standpoint of disruption—something the C-suite does understand.

“It’s what Apple did to BlackBerry, or what Netflix did to Blockbuster, or Amazon to Borders, and what Tesla is doing to the automotive industry,” he says. Companies must transform to stay in the game, he says.

Many don’t. According to Innosight’s corporate longevity forecast of S&P 500 companies, the 33-year average tenure of companies on the S&P 500 in 1964 narrowed to 24 years by 2016 and is forecast to shrink to just 12 years by 2027.

Those are numbers likely to get any C-suite executive to sit up and take notice and consider the potential of the metaverse for ensuring compelling connections between customers, prospects, and other audiences.

Timing will be everything. Companies need to engage quickly enough to keep up with or not lag too far behind the competition, but not so quickly that their audiences aren’t ready to engage.

To engage effectively users must have both the will and the interest, and their own tools, technology, and connectivity to make the experience a good one. Accessibility is another concern. While there are some aspects of the metaverse that might represent positive experiences for some disabled people (to move and engage in virtual physical activities, for instance), there are other aspects that might be challenging. People with motor and dexterity impairments could have difficulties doing pinches, swipes, and hand gestures that might be required to navigate the metaverse. It is not clear whether the devices that we already use to make the internet accessible will be easily transferrable to the metaverse.

Finally, the technology itself and how quickly it is advanced and made obsolete is likely to represent challenges for marketers and companies.

As they contemplate how to enter the metaverse, how to manage the applications they’ve already initiated, or how to effectively prepare for the future, there are some important benchmarks to keep in mind.

BEST PRACTICES FOR THE METAVERSE

While many major companies have already created metaverses, or virtual worlds, many others have not. Again, likening the emergence of these virtual worlds to the emergence of the internet, many businesses are in a wait-and-see mode. But ultimately, as with the internet, it’s likely that all businesses will need to stake a claim to the metaverse or risk failing to engage key audiences—or to even exist. It’s predicted, Goldenberg says, that by 2027, 70 percent of companies will be in the metaverse. Now is the time to begin exploring opportunities to leverage the metaverse to support or augment marketing and customer relationship management efforts. Goldenberg suggests taking these steps.

Learn. Take the time to educate yourself.

With many big companies already using the metaverse to engage with customers and prospects in varied ways, marketers have an opportunity to check out these applications from a consumer standpoint.

What do you like? What don’t you like? What use cases might be relevant and engaging for your own audiences?

“Marketers should take the time to understand the technology and its capabilities and create unique experiences that are both engaging and relevant to their target audiences,” Boothe agrees. “As with any new technology, there will be a learning curve, and marketers should take the time to understand the technology before investing significant resources into their metaverse endeavors,” he advises.

Experiment. Once you are educated, Goldenberg suggests giving it a try. “The best way is through some sort of a pilot that would allow you to test your vision,” he says.

Sara Varni, chief marketing officer of Attentive, a conversational commerce platform provider, points to Gucci’s work with Roblox as an example. “A great way to experiment with the metaverse is with virtual events,” she suggests. “Even without significant marketing budgets, brands of all sizes can look for high-visibility niche opportunities that won’t detract significant budget from funds required to generate near-term sales. Brands can also consider a low-investment approach like minting [a non-fungible token] or setting up a virtual venue.”

Seek sponsors. Many companies that are dipping their toes in the metaverse are doing so with support from big tech companies, Varni says. PacSun and Prada, for instance, are “getting help from Meta to manufacture and sell their virtual garments,” she says. “Think about seeking out a sponsor from the technology industry to share the expense of today’s metaverse trials.”

Be practical. As with any marketing endeavor, the first step in expanding into the metaverse is to clearly and thoroughly understand customer and consumer needs and then to meet those needs efficiently and seamlessly. While the flash and dazzle of the metaverse and its related technologies can be compelling, marketers should be careful to provide real value to consumers.

Like other hot trends in the digital space, marketers need to be grounded in the fact that consumers are still undecided when it comes to the metaverse, says Varni. She points to research from Zipline showing that 85 percent of Gen Z respondents “felt indifferent about brands developing a presence in the metaverse.” In fact, she adds, “they expressed greater interest in real-life, in-store experiences that incorporate mixed reality technologies.”

That’s not to say that the metaverse won’t become a major channel for online commerce, she adds, but “like most seismic shifts, it won’t happen overnight.”

It’s also important to be practical from a customer or consumer relationship perspective, Boothe advises. He encourages marketers to consider the implications of their presence in the metaverse and to determine how it might affect their existing relationships with customers. These efforts should be designed to support companies’ brands and focused on meeting customer and consumer needs.

The metaverse, Varni says, “is here to stay, and it will parallel our real lives.” The novelty of the metaverse, like the novelty of the internet, though, will eventually fade away. The applications that last will offer real and practical value.

Develop and monitor KPIs. “Develop key performance indicators and success criteria up front so you can easily evaluate results and draw ROI comparisons to other marketing initiatives,” Varni suggests. “Like any new channel, marketers should approach their first steps as they would any other line item in the budget—strategically and grounded in data.”

Whether users are shopping for new furniture or makeup, attending a global event, participating in a product demo, flying a fighter jet, or learning how to do heart surgery, the metaverse holds promise to make these interactions more accessible, more engaging, and more real than ever before. What your company can do in the metaverse is up to you, but go there carefully. And don’t wait too long. 

Linda Pophal is a freelance business journalist and content marketer who writes for various business and trade publications. Pophal does content marketing for Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, and individuals on a wide range of subjects, from human resource management and employee relations to marketing, technology, healthcare industry trends, and more.

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