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As a technology communicator, a prerequisite of my job is to be in tune with the technology that’s on the horizon. I reported on digital transformation in retail for years. It’s been fascinating to watch brands come to life in augmented and virtual reality. And, particularly in light of a pandemic, when it matters more than ever how we access and connect with shopping and commerce from the safety of our homes.
I’ve been interested in the metaverse, a decentralized virtual universe posited to be a few years from existence, for some time. Since before Facebook (now Meta) and Microsoft made major metaverse investment and positioning announcements. For me, it feels like a natural evolution of digital transformation. One that retailers ought to pay attention to since the merging of our digital and physical environments is all but inevitable.
Recently, though, I came to an interesting and troubling realization. While I might be more in-tune than the average adult with the metaverse conceptually, our kids are the ones building it.
Here’s what my kids’ Roblox addiction taught me about the metaverse.
1. Gen Z will own the metaverse
In the strictest sense, the conceptualized metaverse is still years away. In practice, though, virtual universes already exist in the form of online games and our kids are living, socializing and purchasing within them.
This means that the purchase behavior of Gen Z will largely dictate how the metaverse comes to fruition since we’ll have data on how to convert engagement and sales from this demographic. (Inversely, the exposure of Gen Z to online universes is already informing their purchase behavior.)
However these digital universes come to life, whether as iterations of video games or a more complete decentralized universe, they’re going to be increasingly important commerce channels.
It stands to reason, then, that the brands that are showing up will have an edge with next-gen consumers. Brands like Nike and Vans capitalized on a first-mover advantage by partnering with Roblox to build Nikeland and a Vans branded skatepark, respectively.
Of course, not all brand activations are created equally. According to Christina Wootton, VP of Brand Partnerships for Roblox, authenticity in brand activations is key. “Overall, our vision for these activations on the platform is to encourage brands to create authentic and native connections with their fans, which enhance our community’s shared experience without interrupting what they are already doing,” said Wootton in an interview for Digiday.
NASCAR, for example, launched a 10-day in-game experience. It yielded a 30 percent increase in concurrent players in a popular Roblox game, Jailbreak. The activation was a success, as it was visited more than 24 million times. This suggests it enhanced the user experience in the context of the game for a mutual lift for the brand and platform.
2. It’s not just about gaming, or even commerce
If you’re a parent of a school-aged child, chances are you’ve heard your kids having interpersonal conflict from underneath their gaming headsets. Thanks to the pandemic, kids are experiencing socialization at a key developmental time in the context of their favorite games.
As a result of bringing social touchpoints with friends to their television screens, social proof in the context of games has become important. Kids are likely to spend money on a skin for their character over a physical t-shirt. Because the skins are a marker of status where their social circles increasingly exist — online.
This social pressure is an incredible purchase motivator. The companies that fail to appreciate that socialization is happening behind screens, and all of the accompanying implications for consumer behavior, risk obsolescence with this key demographic.
What does this mean for businesses, when it comes to the future of consumerism? It means there’s more to this NFT thing than many of us realize — social proof in a digital realm matters and can be conveyed through digital objects.
3. We need to be thoughtful about how the metaverse comes to life
Whenever new technologies emerge, grappling with the ethics of those technologies is essential. That means taking a futurist look at the ramifications of emerging technologies, including unintended consequences.
It’s easy to do in retrospect, but we should have taken a look at the possible ramifications of the social media algorithm, which has contributed to isolationism, political polarization and mental health issues. If we had done so, I hope we would have come up with a different model for social media monetization.
It’s our ethical responsibility as innovators to think deeply about the implications of technologies and build consumer safeguards along with new infrastructures. That is, just because we have the data to understand how to addict people to our content doesn’t mean that’s the right path for society or even our bottom lines.
With the metaverse, the stakes are high for future generations. We ought to think long and hard about the social implications of keeping people engaged in digital universes. However, the fact is that younger generations are already living in them.
As a generation defines a new social norm, are we listening and engaging? It’s time for brands to meet younger generations where they are, and will be in the future. It will take forward-thinking entrepreneurs and business leaders to thoughtfully build a blended digital and physical reality that we’ll actually want to inhabit.