In the past year the amount of media attention on “the metaverse” has been intense, and it looks set to continue as we grapple with what for some is either the future of the internet, or a concept that is doomed to fail.

The central question for many marketing and digital teams is whether they need to act now: do they start to plan for a future where the metaverse is a central place where we interact with brands, do they dismiss it all as Zuckerberg-driven nonsense, or do they play a game of “wait and see?"

Cynicism, Hope from Digital Customer Experience Space

Privately many people I speak to in the digital customer experience space are cynical about the prospects of the metaverse, but this is often specifically in relation to the initiative from Meta and possibly fueled by a dislike of Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg. Other typical comments include that there simply isn’t the case or demand for it, or that we have already been through the hype cycle of brands getting excited about Second Life, and then Roblox and Fortnite, and engagement at scale hasn’t really materialized.

Despite the cynicism of many, there is interest in the potential of the metaverse. For example, a new survey from Sitecore asked both marketers and consumers about their perceptions and expectations of the Metaverse, and the results suggest there are opportunities. The results show US marketers strongly believe in there being potential; 90% of marketers believe a future Metaverse could solve business challenges, with groups highlighting brand awareness (68%), customer engagement (59%) and sales and revenue potential (54%) among these. A surprising 31% said that they were already engaging with the Metaverse, and 55% thought it was likely they would engage with it in the future.

Among US consumers, Sitecore’s research suggests that 42% are currently what it dubs “Metaverse enthusiasts” meaning they currently engage with the Metaverse or want to do so in the near future. The aspects they look forward to most are:

  • Experiencing things I wouldn’t normally experience (57%)
  • Escaping reality (51%)
  • Opportunity to test products and services before buying (49%)

Of the consumers who do want to engage with the Metaverse, 88% expect brands to be selling or advertising there.

Despite this optimism, and other surveys which suggest the potential, there are four significant challenges about the metaverse we need to overcome before the metaverse assumes a greater role in our digital lives:

Related Article: Madtech Meets the Metaverse: A Marketer's Guide

Challenge #1: Defining the Metaverse

One of the main challenges is being able to define the metaverse. Like many terms associated with technology and future opportunities, there is some common understanding of what it generally encompasses conceptually, but actually no consensus at all of what it actually is or will become. That has the potential to contribute to significant confusion about the metaverse, and that’s not conducive to moving forward.

One thing we can categorically state: the metaverse is not just a project from Meta. They may want to create that impression, but the term and concept has been around longer than Mark Zuckerberg’’s “brainwave." Actually, the metaverse is many things to different people including:

  • The next generation of the internet
  • A single, virtual world experienced with VR and AR
  • A series of virtual worlds that are connected by common standards and an identity where people can move from one to the other as avatars
  • A virtual world or worlds where people can start to create and build within that world
  • All of the above and more

One definite contributor to the confusion is the description of the metaverse in the singular. Arguably, at the moment the metaverse as it stands is a series of virtual worlds. Should that be the metaversi?

Another factor in the confusion over defining the metaverse is that many companies, industry observers and marketers are busy telling us about their vision of what it is, and sometimes stating this is as an absolute truth. We’re arguably no closer to getting that common vision and consensus understanding.

Related Article: Can You Trust Meta's Metaverse?

Learning Opportunities

Challenge #2: Dispelling the Confusion

The rosy response from marketers and consumers to the metaverse in the Sitecore survey tends to look at future potential, but current levels of interest are actually a lot less positive. In the latest State of Digital Customer Experience report from CMSWire, 42% of organizations are currently not paying any attention to the metaverse at all and a further 39% are taking a “wait and see” attitude.

This current passive attitude to the metaverse is likely to be fueled by the misconceptions and confusion about what it actually is. With so much noise about the metaverse, it is hard to dispel the confusion, and have a sensible debate about how we can advance something which genuinely does have potential.

Challenge #3: Lack of Maturity in the Experience

One of the problems is that the actual metaverse experience is arguably still not immersive enough to achieve the scale and role that is envisaged for it. The lack of maturity is characterized by Zuckerburg’s recent announcement that meta has been able to develop legs for their avatars, an assertion that was ridiculed by many as evidence of the folly of Meta’s whole metaverse project. The “reveal” also turned out to involve smoke and mirrors, with the legs actually being animated in the demo shown. 

Similarly, the lack of maturity around VR and AR that may or may not be involved in the metaverse may also be holding it back. Additionally, the dependency on a VR headset seems at odds with the convenience that will be required for what is potentially the “next gen” internet. While this doesn’t mean that we won’t get there in the future, there is still a lot of work and serious levels of investment that needs to happen.

Related Article: Is It Really Time for Customer Experience Professionals to Explore the Metaverse?

Challenge #4: Working Together

If the metaverse is going to be a single, immersive environment then it’s going to require cooperation between the mega-tech companies like Meta, Alphabet, Microsoft, Apple and Amazon. And while tech companies do have a record of moving toward interoperability and even making some standards open source, the metaverse is at the end of the day still a commercial opportunity. It’s possible that a lack of cooperation could see the evolution of different environments, with some ending up as the virtual world equivalent of Betamax video, or equally, them all failing.

Advancing the Metaverse

2023 is going to be the year when we are going to hear a lot about the metaverse, but the amount of attention focused on it will far exceed the progress we are likely to make at least in what’s available to experience.

It’s time we started to try and have a proper debate about what the metaverse is, how it will benefit us, and how we can get there. Only then can marketers really start to plan for the metaverse with confidence and take an active rather than passive stance on what still could turn out to be either the future of customer experience, or a massive anti-climax in the vein of the millennium bug or driverless cars.

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