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How to create meaning and value in the metaverse

The CEO of Storyblocks discusses three considerations for companies that want to compete in this immersive new world—one of which is to spread the wealth.

How to create meaning and value in the metaverse
[Source photos: Flashpop/Getty Images; Scott Webb/Pexels]

Tech companies are currently stumbling over themselves to see who can make a bigger bet on the metaverse. However, beyond a massive financial commitment, exactly what it will take to win is still largely unproven. Will it simply be a “copy and paste” of the current digital landscape? Will our ad-filled 2D screens simply morph into privately owned virtual worlds overflowing with 3D ads? I think we all hope for something more. In the end, brands that actively try to right what the social web got wrong, and embrace the unique attributes of the new medium, will develop winning metaverse strategies.

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The metaverse is so alluring in part because it gives us a chance to fix much of what we got wrong with the current version of the internet. The reality of the social web is that while it added a “write” component to the original web’s “read” functionality, it’s still primarily a publishing and consumption tool with only the most basic forms of interaction built in. The current social web is a collection of walled gardens with extractive business models that sell your privacy for profit. What’s worse, it does so while failing to accurately represent the society it serves, inflaming our differences instead of celebrating them. The result is a digital world designed to capture our attention, but one that provides little real meaning or purpose.

In the metaverse, the blueprint for success starts with delivering meaning, will leverage rich and immersive experiences, and flip the business model to allow communities to share the economic benefits from the virtual worlds they help to create.

Design for diversity

As we have learned in the real world, a sense of belonging is central to creating lasting communities and the same will be true of our digital identities. While early stages of the metaverse have looked more like a race to acquire income or status via digital assets, the real winners will be those who build experiences that attract real community and ongoing engagement. 

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On today’s social web, companies fail to engage diverse audiences when they focus on mass appeal rather than investing to create authentic content or when they allow user-generated content to inflame our differences. Brands that lead with representative content generate as much as 40% higher ROI than those that don’t. Companies attempting to enter the metaverse without embracing diversity will see similar gaps in engagement levels. If the path to success in the metaverse is in part about building meaning for our digital identities, companies must understand and embrace the differences, nuances, expressions, and tastes of all the cultures present.

Companies can win big with diverse audiences and position their campaigns by investing more funds into audience research and taking a more equitable approach as it relates to positioning their brand towards underrepresented markets. For example, it’s not enough for brands to take a commercial (that may feature a white family with American-brand clothing styles and American pop culture references) and translate that commercial into different languages.

Instead, companies must invest in production of marketing that is individualized to their target audiences. This doesn’t only include producing a different commercial or piece of content. Companies should also invest the time to research what brands, artists, and cultural references will resonate with those audiences in order to foster higher engagement levels. This can often be achieved by working with creative consultants from underrepresented communities who can validate your thinking.

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Hoping for a representative community is not enough. But there is an opportunity to design for it and designers and content creators will play huge roles in building these new virtual worlds. Just as bias is present in today’s algorithms because of the lack of diversity within the AI field, we risk the same mistake if we don’t actively look to diversify talent as we build these new virtual worlds. Much of the early metaverse talent is migrating from gaming and digital development, where massive gaps exist. The STEM workforce (including computer jobs) is dominated by white males while Black and Hispanic workers remain drastically underrepresented and women account for just 25%. 

Prioritizing diverse design teams will require extra steps in the recruiting and training process, but if we draw conclusions from the social web, taking the extra time now will lead to higher engagement, more meaning, and greater ROI in the future. 

Committing to prioritizing diversity during the recruiting and training processes is a hefty task, but one that’s absolutely essential. In order to successfully recruit diverse team members, companies will need to take a hard look at their recruiting efforts to see where they might fall short when it comes to diverse and underrepresented candidates. For companies who aren’t sure where to begin, it may be helpful to implement demographic targets, conduct audits of your organization to identify gaps, and set goals that the organization hopes to reach to make sure everyone is aligned and committed to equity during the recruiting process. 

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Provide a rich and immersive experience

While Web 3.0 will undoubtedly introduce new forms of 3D and other immersive content, today’s social web and the rise of video provide some insight into what will be required to win. Brands are already struggling to keep up. The typical mid-size business must generate over 500 videos a year and large, public companies need to create thousands in order to remain competitive. Businesses with an effective video strategy typically see 49% revenue growth over businesses that don’t, and video dramatically outperforms video across social media. Just as the web today demands 100 times more content than it did a decade ago, the transition to the metaverse will require companies to churn out 100 times more content than they do today. 

With the almost-overnight surge in video production, brands and larger marketing teams are feeling a massive strain to accelerate their video strategies to keep up with the growing demand for video while individual creators definitely have an advantage. Things like complex workflows and content creation barriers ultimately make it harder for companies to generate video content quickly. In order to streamline their production processes, companies will need to revamp their existing workflows to cut out unnecessary steps that may be holding them back from creating quick, efficient content. Like diversifying recruiting processes, so much of the solution lies within proper research. Brands need to make sure they’re on the ball when it comes to having equitable and comprehensive sources for stock footage, navigating potential licensing concerns, and collaborating efficiently. It’s also important for brands to stay flexible and quickly adopt new creation tools. As the metaverse develops, we’re likely to see a new generation of content and tools to help generate high-quality content at scale and it’s crucial for brands to embrace these new platforms.

Share the economic benefit with your community

While the extractive ad-based models of the social web built value for shareholders by monetizing your private data, metaverse winners will provide a clear path for community builders and participants to share in the economic upside, creating a more level playing field between companies and creators.

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To attract top talent to build out rich and immersive experiences, metaverse companies have the opportunity to better align incentives not just with employees, but also customers. Tech companies have famously given equity out to workers, while the actual customers of its products have provided both the supply and demand for its ad-supported business models. The combination of digital property rights and token distribution opens up surface area for new business models, and enables metaverse companies to share ownership not just with employees, but active members of their community. 

In addition to shaping a more symbiotic relationship with customers, the metaverse also has the opportunity to pave the way for change with underrepresented artists. In today’s creator economy, influencers from underrepresented groups are still subjected to discrimination, often paid less and without access to the same opportunities. White influencers reportedly earn 35% more than Black influencers. After underrepresented creators began to voice their frustrations, social media companies are taking actions to address platform discrimination. TikTok launched a “Discover List” to highlight 50 influential, diverse creators and launched a Creator Diversity Collective to bring together creators to help make the app more inclusive, while Instagram began amplifying Black-owned businesses on the app with a “Black-owned” label in order to help users find and interact with Black creators and their businesses. While these efforts are admirable, they don’t fix the fundamental problem: the extractive relationship between today’s web giants, their ad-supported business models, and the customers that fuel their growth.

It’s evident that the real winners of the metaverse will be companies and brands that recognize the opportunity to reset mistakes made during the rise of the social web. Companies that build more meaningful communities by prioritizing diversity and representation will be rewarded with more engagement. Brands that embrace content creation strategies that enable them to build rich and immersive experiences at scale will enjoy higher ROI. Only those that engage in two-way relationships that share the wealth created through these virtual worlds back with the communities that inhabit them will endure and flourish. And companies that think they can simply throw money at the metaverse in hopes of creating a new revenue stream for their existing business models will be left behind as they watch their earnings bleed to a new generation of market leaders.

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TJ Leonard is the CEO of Storyblocks.


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