metaverse concept
Image credit: Black Salmon/Shutterstock

The metaverse is widely talked-about as the “next internet”, with many businesses eagerly making investments in things like online gaming platforms, VR and AR, NFTs, and other virtual goods and experiences to prepare for this anticipated shift in our physical and virtual lives.

Gartner has published a prediction that by 2026, 25% of people will be spending at least one hour per day in the metaverse for “work, shopping, education, social and/or entertainment”. Additionally, according to a report by Wunderman Thompson, ‘Disruptive Technologies’, 85% of senior decision-makers in digital commerce, marketing and IT said that the metaverse will be either “somewhat” or “absolutely” essential to advancing their business in the next one to two years.

But amidst the excitement from businesses, industry leaders and consultancies, how do consumers feel about the metaverse? What do they understand “metaverse” to mean, and how do they anticipate that it will impact their lives?

While there is a lot of enthusiasm from the world of business and technology about this potential new innovation, it’s vital for marketers to keep in touch with the way that consumers feel about what’s happening. After all, these are the potential end users for the metaverse – and if the adoption isn’t there, the metaverse will struggle to get off the ground, no matter how good the technology, or how high the investments.

In this second instalment of our Metaverse Reality Check series, I’ll take a close look at what we know about attitudes to the metaverse among consumers – how well they understand it, and how they feel about it, as well as what this means for marketers.

How well do consumers understand the metaverse?

In the first instalment of this series, I looked at the inconsistency that tends to surround definitions of the metaverse, even in published research, and why this causes a problem for marketers and businesses discussing the metaverse and trying to understand where the opportunities lie.

While some assert that a version of the “metaverse” already exists in the form of multiplayer online games like Roblox, Fortnite and Minecraft in which players interact as avatars, most would agree that we don’t yet know what form the metaverse will take or when it will emerge. Nevertheless, many commentators have taken to using the word “metaverse” to refer to the technologies that they expect will be key to its eventual formation, such as AR and VR, the aforementioned gaming platforms, the blockchain, and NFTs. Some even use it to describe any event or experience that occurs in a virtual space.

I argued that using “metaverse” as a catch-all term, even if these technologies may at some point be part of the metaverse, makes it more difficult to know what is really under discussion and to evaluate its strengths and weaknesses in a marketing context. On top of this, the lack of clarity gives rise to another major issue: consumers feel confused and unable to follow the conversation about the “next big thing”, which can lead to wariness about the technology in question.

Aware but uncertain

Many surveys and studies about the metaverse have set out to evaluate overall consumer awareness of the metaverse, and although the findings are not always identical, the general trend has been of a broad and growing awareness of the concept. A study by Axios and Momentive that surveyed more than 2,500 US adults between 23rd and 25th March found that only 39% of respondents were “somewhat” (27%) or “very” (12%) familiar with the metaverse, while 60% were either “not too familiar” (26%) or “not familiar at all” (33%). However, two different surveys by Wunderman Thompson Intelligence of more than 3,000 people aged 16-65 in the UK, US and China, one conducted in July 2021 and one conducted in March 2022, found that 74% of respondents had heard of the metaverse in 2022, up from just 32% in 2021.

Little of this awareness seems to have translated into confident understanding, however. Despite the broad metaverse awareness it reported in March 2022, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence also found that only 15% of respondents “knew what the metaverse was and could explain it to someone else”. Similarly, a May 2022 survey of more than 1,700 US adults aged 18-60 carried out by Dept Agency found that only 16% of people agreed with the statement, “I understand what the metaverse is”.

Understanding is limited even among “early adopters” of the metaverse. A McKinsey & Company study from June 2022 that spoke to more than 1,000 US consumers aged 13-70 found that even amongst those “who had recent experiences using one or more metaverse platforms”, less than half had a confident understanding of the metaverse. Thirty percent of early adopters “had a basic understanding of the metaverse as “a digital world beyond anything a person can imagine”, but lacked a clear view of how it works”, while nearly a quarter (23%) “couldn’t actually describe it clearly in their own words, despite being a user or player in one of the digital worlds”.

This begs the question of whether many of the consumers who are being branded as “adopters” of the metaverse would apply that term to themselves. When surveying consumers on metaverse awareness, McKinsey & Company reported that “55 percent of our survey respondents said they had heard of at least one existing metaverse platform, such as Roblox, Fortnite, or Decentraland. Interestingly, nearly 30 percent said they had used or played at least one metaverse game.” Despite the fact that Fortnite and Roblox are often considered part of “the metaverse”, however, consumers may not think of these platforms in that way. Roblox was released all the way back in 2006, and Fortnite has been around since 2017 – both considerably pre-dating the recent surge in metaverse hype and discussion.

While the heads of both gaming companies have stated that they consider their games to be, or want their games to be, part of the metaverse that is currently being built, it’s likely that players of these games simply think of themselves as players – and not as users of the metaverse. So, while studies like McKinsey’s might identify them as metaverse “early adopters”, this doesn’t necessarily translate into any broader understanding of, or even interest in, the metaverse.

Illustration of a pair of hands holding a controller
Metaverse “early adopters” or simply gamers? The characterisation of online gaming platforms as “metaverse” platforms may not reflect how their users see things. Image: karnoff / Shutterstock

Metaverse ambivalence

All of the conversation around the metaverse, however, has clearly translated into an awareness of the concept – at least for a good portion of consumers. So, what kind of emotions do consumers associate with the idea of the metaverse?

Axios and Momentive’s study of more than 2,500 US adults quizzed respondents on whether the idea of a ‘metaverse’ made them more excited or more scared about the future. Just 7% of respondents reported that it made them more excited for the future, while close to a third – 32% – said it made them more scared. However, a much larger proportion (58%) said “neither”, indicating that the prospect of a metaverse didn’t evoke any particularly strong positive or negative emotions.

Wunderman Thompson Intelligence’s 2022 report ‘New Realities: Into the Metaverse and Beyond’ (surveying 3,005 people aged 16-65 in the US, UK and China) relayed some more positive associations: among those who knew what the metaverse was, 74% said it was “the future”, 72% believed it is “the next big thing”, and 66% called it “life-changing”. Seventy percent of respondents who knew what the metaverse was also said it will be inclusive (with 62% believing it has the ability to be more inclusive than the physical world), while 64% said the metaverse “can bring people together”.

However, respondents also had plenty of concerns, with those who knew what the metaverse was expressing concerns about everything from children’s privacy (72%) and safety (66%) to general privacy (68%), data protection (69%), and bullying (57%).

Lack of familiarity isn’t always an obstacle for consumers, some of whom might be motivated to try the metaverse in order to find out what it is. Dept Agency’s study of more than 1,700 US adults asked respondents what, if anything, would encourage them to participate in the metaverse, and more than two fifths (41.3%) said “curiosity”, while 12.6% said they would do so to attend an event, and 12.1% said gaming would be a motivation. However, 19.2% of respondents said that nothing would incentivise them to participate in the metaverse.

The study also quizzed respondents on potential drawbacks of the metaverse; close to half (47.1%) were concerned about the metaverse leading to a disconnect from “real life”. Other major concerns were trolling or harassment (raised by 19.5%) and censorship or misinformation (listed by 16.7%).

While brands are no doubt hoping that they can incentivise consumers to take part in the metaverse by building engaging experiences, consumers are also ambivalent about the prospect of interacting with brands in the metaverse. According to Dept Agency, 50% of US adults surveyed said they would engage with brands in the metaverse. However, another survey of 600 US consumers aged 13-50 by retail operations platform Zipline found that although 80% of Generation Z respondents were “familiar” with the metaverse, they were overwhelmingly disinterested in interacting with brands there, with 85% saying they were indifferent to brands establishing a presence in the metaverse.

This may seem particularly worrying given that it’s generally predicted younger generations will be the most avid adopters of the metaverse as it becomes more established. In a blog write-up of the survey’s findings, Zipline CEO Melissa Wong speculated on what might be causing Gen Z’s “hesitation” around the metaverse, writing,

“Our survey suggests that the primary challenge for retailers will be overcoming a lack of understanding of the metaverse, which Gen Z (43%), Millennials (43%), and Gen X (53%) cite as the main reason for not participating. Monetary obstacles and lack of time ranked second and third, respectively.”

Metaverse emotions among consumers seem to run the gamut from futuristic excitement to justifiable caution, and issues like harassment and misinformation will need to be addressed at a foundational level as the metaverse develops if consumers are to feel safe and confident there. However, consumers are also clearly at sea about what the metaverse is meant to represent to begin with, which also impacts their confidence and willingness to engage with the concept. For brands who are eagerly touting their forays into the metaverse, or planning future investments in metaverse-related technologies and platforms, this presents a problem. What can be done to mitigate this situation?

Don’t call it “the metaverse”

In the wake of Dept Agency’s research finding that only 16% of people understand what the metaverse is, the agency recommended that brands avoid the term “metaverse” altogether, quoting Web3 brand activation and retail innovation consultant Paula Marie Kilgarriff, who advised,

“[Brands should] stay away from saying ‘the one metaverse.’ What brands are doing is using technology to create 3D virtual experiences that encourage co-creation and customisation. It’s really about augmenting, not replacing other experiences.”

Kelsey Anderson, Senior Content Marketing Manager at Dept, added, “By calling it a singular metaverse, your marketers and technologists are getting backed into a corner. It creates an in and an out crowd. Users might also think they need a VR headset to access the metaverse.”

It’s worth noting that despite being almost the prototypical example of a “metaverse” activation, nowhere in Nike’s announcement of Nikeland on Roblox (preserved on the Wayback Machine, as the original link is no longer live) does the word “metaverse” appear. Instead, it is described as a “bespoke world … inside Roblox’s immersive 3D space”, complete with a “digital showroom”. The announcement leaves readers in no doubt as to what the experience will involve, and succeeds in building excitement for the world, but does so without needing to refer to the metaverse.

Granted, you could argue that numerous publications accomplished this for Nike by linking Nikeland to the metaverse, but in my view, Nike’s decision to present the experience in this way shows a commitment to making Nikeland universal: accessible to everyone regardless of their interest in or familiarity with the metaverse. It also makes the announcement more evergreen by avoiding linking it to specific buzzwords that might enjoy a limited time in the spotlight.

Nike’s announcement of Nikeland in Roblox successfully articulated the appeal of the experience without needing to use the term “metaverse”. (Image: Nike News press image)

In the previous instalment of this series I posed a series of questions for marketers to ask when approaching the topic of the metaverse, or considering a marketing activation involving the metaverse, one of which was, “Does [your goal] need to be achieved through a “metaverse” activation, or are there other ways to engage with the audience that would make sense for the brand?” Another related question I would add to this is, “Does the draw of your marketing activation rely on the term “metaverse” being used, or can you articulate its appeal without depending on the metaverse to build excitement?”

Getting metaverse marketing right

With multiple studies of consumer attitudes showing that many people are less than excited about the advent of the metaverse, feeling confused by, uncertain about, or disinterested in it, brands and marketers should beware of getting caught up in a bubble of metaverse hype and in the process losing sight of what their intended audience might feel about the metaverse and whether they are interested in engaging with the brand in this way.

Which is not to say that successful metaverse-oriented activations don’t exist: Nikeland is proof positive that they do, and luxury brands like Gucci have shown that there can be just as much demand for their goods in virtual form as there is for the physical items. However, as I covered earlier and in Part 1 of this series, the emergence of a “fully-fledged” metaverse is still thought to be some way off, meaning that virtual, proto-metaverse marketing activations are being created with the platforms and technologies we have today – which are not the same as the metaverse.

While these activations can give brands a sense of how to translate their business model and appeal into a virtual environment, brands need to ensure that they are doing so while playing to the actual strengths and audience of the platform they are using (be it Roblox, Fortnite, Decentraland, Horizon Worlds, or even a purpose-built environment) rather than a hypothetical idea of how the metaverse might work or appeal to people in future. This comes back to my point about brands needing to be able to articulate the appeal and purpose of a “metaverse” marketing activation beyond the fact that it’s in the metaverse. The successful campaigns that we’ve seen so far have taken off not because of inherent consumer excitement for the metaverse, but because brands have crafted them to suit the platforms and demographics where they are being launched.

There are also examples of the reverse in action, where brand “metaverse” activations have met with a poor reception from consumers because they failed to create an experience that was engaging in its own right. In December 2021, fashion brand Forever 21 partnered with game development company Wonder Works Studio and “metaverse creation company” Virtual Brand Group (VBG) to launch Forever 21 Shop City, a branded retail experience within Roblox that VBG CEO Justin Hochberg called “one of the biggest metaverse launches this year”. However, coverage by Input magazine revealed that teen players of Roblox were not impressed with Shop City, deeming it user-unfriendly and uninspiring.

One teenager interviewed referred to the experience as “uninteresting, given that it’s so generic and pushy with the brand,” while another called the gameplay “bland”. “Sell clothes, answer questions, run all the way to the Forever 21 building to pick up more clothes, rinse and repeat,” he said.

The commentary from teen consumers – who are frequently the very demographic that brands are hoping to appeal to with their forays into the metaverse – underscores the importance of keeping a check on consumers’ feelings towards metaverse marketing and how they are really receiving these virtual brand activations. One sixteen-year-old “longtime Roblox fan” told Input magazine, “Most of these [branded games] are quite boring and only get players during the promotional period. I know a lot of creators and players on the platform feel like this push is a blatant cash grab and a sign of the corporatization of Roblox games.”

In the midst of an immense amount of metaverse hype, it is vital for brands and marketers to stay grounded in reality and make sure that in their eagerness to be part of the next big thing, they aren’t inadvertently driving consumers away from it – or away from their brand.

Read the other parts of this series: