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In October, Merriam-Webster minted 455 new words and definitions for its dictionary. Additions included “TBH,” “copypasta,” and “amirite.” Noticing a trend? 

The melding of our online and offline lives started gradually, then seemingly finished overnight. Through small, informal steps (like the language we use every day) all the way to events that take place in—not alongside—digital spaces, the stage has been set for society to embrace a brave new hybrid world. 

Enter: the metaverse. 

Let’s back up for a moment. The metaverse refers to an ecosystem that lets users interact as avatars, and which operates as a digital environment but possesses certain “real” aspects: Individualized identities, currencies, and, increasingly, familiar products. Though the term was first coined in the 1991 sci-fi book Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, its newfound relevance can be chalked up to both Facebook’s re-brand to ‘Meta’ as well as popular avatar-based games like Fortnite.

Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, which first featured the term “metaverse.”

Naturally, a new age of digital marketing is also on the horizon—one that replaces traditional, transactional advertising with immersive user experiences. Let’s take a closer look at how brands are getting a head start and what may lie ahead.

More than a game

The metaverse hinges on individuals spending serious time—and, sometimes, money—in virtual-first environments. It’s no surprise, then, that early examples most often center on one thing: Video games. 

In a series of essays on the metaverse, venture capitalist Matthew Ball discusses one of the first ultra-realistic games, Flight Simulator, to illustrate the scale of these digitally-built environments. Flight Simulator, he notes, “is the most realistic and expansive consumer simulation in history. It includes over 2 trillion individually rendered trees, 1.5 billion buildings and nearly every road, mountain, city and airport globally.” 

That’s a lot of space for marketers to work with—especially when these types of experiences expand beyond amateur pilots and cartography buffs.

Take another game, Roblox, for example. The platform lets players inhabit worlds crafted by other users, leaving design up to the community. They’ve also recently begun experimenting with interactive ads, which allow marketers far more freedom than product placements or merely plastering an ad on a static video game level. They create a blended experience that changes as players move through games, altogether giving advertisements a way to come to life.  

Automaker Hyundai has taken advantage by creating its own Roblox level where all the cars are its own. Hyundai entered the metaverse to seek out a younger base on its own turf—games—and aims to “nurture long-lasting relationships with fans.”

With exposure to Roblox’s more than 43 million daily active users on the line, it’s easy to see why brands are jumping at the chance to make their mark.

New rules for virtual marketplaces

In addition to replicating how our world looks, there are also striking changes at hand regarding how people spend money in the metaverse. It wasn’t so long ago that even an online credit card transaction made people a little nervous, but oh, how times have changed. 

For some, the prospect of spending real money on objects that exist primarily in a virtual world still seems strange. In marketplaces set inside games, however, an ingrained commercial element offers a helpful lens to view how people exercise their economic power in the metaverse—and how the practice could move further into the mainstream.

Polling shows that 65% of Gen Z consumers have spent money on a virtual item, such as a specialized piece of gear or character modification, that exists only within the confines of a game.

When digital marketing strategists want to get ahead with this audience, it means getting creative and thinking outside the bounds of conventional campaigns. That gives a hint as to why fashion label Balenciaga created its own video game as a platform to showcase a recent collection. 

The game, called Afterworld: The Age of Tomorrow, was designed in partnership with the studio behind Fortnite and was just the first piece of an ongoing collaboration between the two. Players begin their journey in a digital Balenciaga retail store before unlocking new levels that feature avatars dawning the new season’s styles.

By creating an immersive, interactive, 3D experience with product discovery acting as one piece of the broader environment, the brand saw a means to expand its reach organically and connect with a new audience outside its usual channels.

Where brick and mortar meets VR

The metaverse brings another unique opportunity for digital marketers: A new way to gather data and understand user behavior. 

While online gaming and realistic digital environments have existed for years, the newest feature bringing the metaverse to the masses comes through virtual reality (VR). What was once an obscure, clunky technology has made its way into the homes of millions—and it could be used to help usher retail into a future where the physical and digital experiences converge.

Realistic avatars that can try on clothing; testing out a new sofa inside virtual storefronts; the possibilities that come with a blended shopping experience abound. For the field of digital marketing, it also signals a shift away from data insights that have relied on cookies and sometimes-inexact algorithms.

Now, through virtual and augmented reality systems, brands can measure engagement the old-fashioned way (no window prompting you to opt-in or opt-out of cookies required). As a customer spends time observing or trying items on in the metaverse, marketers gain real-time information about their preferences and can determine exactly how long they interact with products or entire companies.

Brands are taking notice and adapting to the meta landscape with this type of engagement at the top of mind. It’s not just new, tech-centric companies, either. 

Nike, for one, is exploring the possibility of virtual stores as well as ‘downloadable virtual goods.’ They also want to trademark the swoosh logo for use in the digital world to preserve the brand while the product itself enters new dimensions.

Today, no frontier is off-limits for digital marketers. Metaverse or no metaverse, though, some principles still ring true. Most importantly, teams need to design interactive experiences that stoke engagement. If digital marketers can forge authentic relationships, they can also transcend mediums.

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