Welcome to the Metaverse.

The metaverse represents a considerable shift in how, as a technocratic civilisation, we are advancing technology. While there is – as yet – no universal definition, the metaverse is most commonly described as a shared virtual space that enables users to maintain a persistent identity across platforms, not only for entertainment and connection, but also to participate in the global economy. To understand and succeed in this new ecosystem, businesses will need to adopt a new approach to readying themselves for what comes next. For inspiration, many look to existing virtual worlds (e.g. Decentraland, Fortnite, The Sandbox) where brands are already marketing products and delivering experiences. Simply understanding current technological parameters, however, is not enough.

We must begin with the mindset that web 3.0 and the metaverse will bring huge opportunity for brands to pioneer and celebrate new forms of engagement, from gamified rewards to immersive experiences. Driving education and awareness around these virtual worlds will position brands as trustworthy partners across internal and external audiences from day one. But this significant opportunity does not come without risk.

For brands, the inherent danger is omitting to employ a safe, meaningful, and long-term communications strategy in a world that will no longer just be limited to entertainment and gaming, but also professional work environments and our day-to-day lives. A full range of communications risk mitigation and issues management strategies will continue to be required, but they will need to be adapted and augmented as this new environment continues to develop and bring new risks, ranging from privacy issues and data security to cybercrime and money laundering.

In the metaverse, we will see new types of identity theft, new types of fraud and new types of IP challenges, where copyright and trademark infringement, passing off, counterfeit, and false advertising will all be more complex. Even who has a claim against whom and for what may become more ambiguous, especially if laws lag behind technology. When the hacker has an entire metaverse in which to play, distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks could scale up catastrophically.

All of these risks mean that, for brands, thorough crisis communications planning, protocols, teams, training and simulation exercises will be even more important. So too will be ensuring always-on rapid response. Success will be contingent on close monitoring, smart data analysis and diligent stakeholder management.

Embracing the metaverse cannot be achieved by simply replicating what you’ve done on other platforms. The metaverse is an activation channel. Just as it took brands years to perfect social media strategies and map out audience journeys across digital touchpoints, it will take a fresh approach, time and the right talent to determine the best paths in this new environment.

The metaverse is not a ‘mirror universe’, utilitarian nor modelled on reality. Neither is it a substitute for the real world’s behavioural patterns and norms. Think about how communicating to avatars in an interactive environment might change things for brands: integrated communications strategy will have to account for new audience personas, new data and potential problems. Issues like trolling, bullying, and hacking take on a new dimension, as do means of finding connection and community.

So how do brands plan for real-time metaverse engagement? For when their reputation might be at stake? Or for when their audience hijacks, hacks or alters marketing programming? One tactic is to recruit internal advocates, usually employees, into a metaverse platform to learn, engage and advocate. An empowered and diverse ‘metaverse force’ is a valuable tool for generating the social and cultural intelligence required to harness the good of the metaverse while proactively mitigating risk.

The organisations currently involved in the building blocks of what will ultimately become the metaverse are already considering the foundations for a regulated framework. The premise of the metaverse is that VR headsets, along with haptic gloves, immersive audio, and sprawling 3D worlds are coalescing and maturing to the point where we might begin to ‘live’ real-life habits and needs: shop, meet colleagues, create complex designs, learn new skills, all within virtual worlds.

As more and more brands begin to enter this space, building and evolving virtual environments, involving employees as an additional option to new hybrid working models, providing training and enabling cross-functional collaboration will be crucial to long-term success. Over time, each organisation engaged in the metaverse will need to respond and pivot, from monitoring and engaging in real-time customer interaction, to working with regulators to develop robust standards which allow for innovation and growth.

Development will be non-stop. Whereas metaverse(s) are currently small and isolated to discrete platforms and sectors, over the next three to five years this technology will develop to span industries, transform audience behaviours and eventually replace the way people interact and communicate.

Stakeholders in the metaverse aren’t any different to those on existing digital and social channels. The real question is whether leaders, managers and contributors are ready to engage in support of brand reputation and self-police in times of crisis, or whether the voice of consumers – and metaverse trolls – could morph into a brand’s identity? It’s a complex new dimension to communications planning.

Much like AI, the metaverse has had a slow arc. And, as with AI, we’ve now reached a point where technology constitutes less of a barrier to entry than societal issues. Technical obstacles can be circumvented or solved over time. However, as societal issues are guaranteed to take precedence, how successfully brands and organisations activate will largely be contingent on their cultural and social intelligence.

In the meantime, brands, companies and organisations need to understand the numerous potential risks of venturing into the metaverse, such as: fall-out from ill-conceived marketing experiments; reputational risks and rewards; competitors and first mover activation; employee, DE&I discovery and engagement; legal concerns including commercial, contract and intellectual property; communications and narrative disconnects from poor channel planning.

Existing protocols covering crisis management, intellectual property rights and licensing and data protection are a good starting point, but they will need frequent updates in an environment in which it will be exceedingly hard for legislators to keep pace with innovators. While comparisons with the “early days” of the internet can be useful, the technology enabling the metaverse is developing far faster than web 2.0. People’s behaviours and attitudes to technology have changed dramatically during Covid. Unified communications platforms such as Teams and Zoom won people over almost overnight. Cash has all but surrendered to cards, wires and crypto.

People’s expectations have also evolved. In the wake of cookie-less advertising, permission requests and breach reminders have increased customer awareness of their ability to ask for clarification and navigate brand-to-consumer messaging.

This is an opportunity for progressive brands to take a proactive stance and collaborate with audiences, understanding their needs and sharing policies transparently. At the same time, however, the amassing of so much data may be accompanied by increasing obligations to respect and protect it.

It may be worthwhile for all brands to paddle into the shallow end of the metaverse pool, by creating closed or niche environments to test programming, marketing and communications strategies. They can slowly invite outside stakeholders and potentially simulate various scenarios before diving deep into the metaverse ocean.

Brands and companies need to decide how much risk they are willing to take to experience it, as well establishing who their audiences will be. As disparate groups enter and test this new reality, companies’ “meta-maturity” – how well versed they are and their reason for being in the metaverse – will be critical to how effectively they communicate and engage.

Given this is unchartered territory, the best path forward is collaboration, centred around the human experience. This means engaging with those who have already been actively participating in and shaping various iterations of this new ecosystem. There is no doubt that the metaverse will enable amazing applications that enrich our lives, expanding what it means to be human. At the same time, there are very real dangers that need to be managed and addressed.

The best way to enable these experiences while preventing the risks is to keep working towards transparent developments by participating vigorously in the formation of public policy. A strong public affairs and government relations strategy will be required to ensure not just a meaningful voice in the debate but an influence on its outcome.

Many questions remain around the metaverse. If one thing is certain, it’s that the metaverse approach will require flexibility and agility, trial and error, alongside several pilot projects. But brands need to start getting ready. Only then will they be prepared for the many opportunities the metaverse is bound to offer.

Michael Frohlich is EMEA CEO and global transformation lead at Weber Shandwick.