The metaverse is a second chance to right the wrongs of social media. Here’s how

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The metaverse is in turmoil, and it hasn’t even been built yet. Facebook, now Meta, recently announced plans to lay the foundation for a grand new digital world. These intentions have been met with skepticism, especially in the wake of former Facebook employee-turned-whistleblower Francis Haugen’s revelations—the latest in a growing list of controversies. Consider the litany of ongoing issues with social media—the highlights include, but certainly are not limited to, questionable user data privacy, slapdash UX design, and a deeply flawed notion that any engagement is good.

Do we really want these platforms designing an even bigger, more complicated house, when the first one seems well on its way to burning to the ground?

THE PROBLEM WITH PLATFORM-FIRST DESIGN

Rightfully so, the end-user experience usually takes center stage in the discussion of defining the metaverse. But another aspect to consider is the role of brands. What will brands—as creators and communicators—be able to do (and be allowed to do) in the metaverse? What responsibilities will they need to assume to ensure the metaverse is a platform for good?

Historically, a small number of companies—mostly social media, with an assist from broader Big Tech—have crafted the functional language of digital communication, narrowly defining what’s possible in terms of design and often strongly prioritizing their own platforms over UX consistency and best practices. Just think about the persistent buttons over videos on TikTok.

This kind of approach leaves brands at the mercy of platforms in which their stories will always play second fiddle, having to be shoehorned to work around each platform’s idiosyncrasies.

HOW BRANDS CAN GET THE METAVERSE RIGHT

For brands that want to dip their toes into these nascent worlds, creating an experience that enhances the functionality of their product or service is a smart way to go. AR, in particular, is excellent for this. It has the capability to help beauty customers mix custom foundation colors, first-time homebuyers envision their lives in current listings, foodies plan the perfect Instagrammable meal, and any number of things that help users bridge the gap between aspiration and realization. Adidas has deployed AR to let shoppers virtually try on shoes, while Ikea has been integrating it for years to let people visualize furniture in their own homes.

Where AR offers accessibility, extension, and functionality, gaming and VR sit at the other end of the spectrum, delving into the emotional and immersive. Luxury fashion brands have taken first steps in exploring what’s possible. Balenciaga dipped into Fortnite by co-releasing a limited collection and an in-game cosmetic drop. This is an incredible opportunity to make inroads with a young audience that might not have the capital now, but will one day. Meanwhile, Burberry launched its first NFT collection last summer. These brands don’t necessarily expect the end result to be a purchase; the bigger win is the chance to build a brand pathway, develop a relationship, and begin a more engaging, deeper dialogue with audiences.

This is the fledgling beauty of the metaverse. Brands will have the potential to build complete, immersive digital worlds. Gucci can, literally, construct Gucci Land, and then invite consumers inside (or in the case of AR, outside!) to play.

AVOIDING THE DYSTOPIA TRAP

To really get the metaverse right, though, these spaces can’t just become yet another ad platform. We must, at all costs, avoid the dystopian outcomes that social media has inflicted on its collective self.

That means brands have to think about platform but also strategize past any platform. Designing bespoke AR and VR experiences will increasingly be a powerful way to fully craft every aspect of the user experience with your brand, uncompromised by an overlaid social or ad platform.

It also means staying cognizant of the metaverse “arms race” that will inevitably take place as new platforms emerge—”metagalaxies,” if you will—and compete to dominate. Rather than focusing on engagements, conversions, or other transactional data, it will be crucial to consider a given platform with a longer-term view. Fundamentally, how well does the platform align with your core brand values? How well does it get out of the way, receding into the background of the experience, so you can present your brand narrative? And how open or closed is the platform: Does it embrace open industry standards, or is it a walled garden?

Experientially, brands also have to be open to redefining conventions. They need to design digital experiences that are totally logo-free, demonstrating the kind of confidence in which having your brand essence felt carries more value than your logo being seen.

They also need to recognize the potential (and responsibility) of how communication will evolve in the metaverse. The metaverse’s most potent value comes when users are given agency to generate content, or interact with a brand’s content, in a way that makes the output able to be owned, as an emotional investment or even literally by way of NFT minting. Businesses must be prepared to let their users make the brand their own. By doing this, there’s the chance to build a real relationship that transcends measurement by sales or tracked engagement. This isn’t about dropping a cookie and following their every move online, it’s about planting the seeds of experience, dialogue, and trust that turns users into followers, customers, and hopefully one day, brand evangelists.

But to avoid the dystopian, advertising-riddled echo chamber that social media has devolved into, users—not just platforms—will also need guardrails. That means that before brands launch AR campaigns, they need to have conversations about how they’re actively working to create an inclusive and hate-free space. Being thoughtful about which platforms you work with is part of that conversation.

WHAT’S NEXT FOR THE METAVERSE?

It’s essential that brands start strategizing for a future in which the metaverse takes center stage, understanding that there will be some growing pains along the way. For now, hardware is still a roadblock, especially on the AR side. In many ways, this will evolve to act as the experiential onramp to the metaverse. Mobile devices still come up short, and headsets aren’t there yet.

But the tide will soon turn on this problem, and when it does, the game is on. And this is a beacon of hope in better defining what the metaverse looks like. Hardware makers are uniquely positioned to act as stewards of the metaverse, by defining the types of interactions possible, as well as the means through which users will access platforms.

A SECOND CHANCE FOR DIGITAL BRAND EXPERIENCE

The metaverse’s ascendancy is still likely years away. But brands need to start adding it to their playbook now—even if it’s only as a sidebar at this stage.

Not only will early entrants to the metaverse have an edge on the competition, business-wise, these brands will also have the power to shape the future of brand experience for the better. We may be too late to save social media, but the future is still bright for digital brand experience—as long as we’re willing to light the way from the start.

Fran Roberts is creative director at Trollbäck+Company.

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