In defense of Web3 and the metaverse 

Criticisms and technological limitations should not dissuade marketers from continuing to explore the possibilities of Web3, argues Cult’s strategy director, Alex Manning.

2022 was a turbulent year for Web3. We saw (another) crypto crash and the collapse of FTX; plenty of digital ink spilled in the ongoing debate about definitions within Web3 (‘what constitutes Metaverse? Isn't that just gaming?’ et cetera); and a number of underwhelming initiatives launched by major brands, either adopting the Field Of Dreams mentality of ‘if you build it, they will come’, or simply getting important things wrong.

Critics readily point to underperforming campaigns such as Porsche's recent NFT drop, which has seen the brand perform a characteristically speedy U-turn, as an indicator that NFTs are doomed. However, missteps such as this are no more an indictment of the core technology than a bad TV ad amounts to a fatal flaw in that medium.

We must also note that 2022 was a year with a great many Web3 success stories: Metaverse Fashion Week launched in Decentraland with over 70 fashion brands involved, earning 7 billion press impressions globally; Under Armour’s meta-sneaker NFT drop earned $18m in primary and secondary sales, with 25 million visits to the drop site; Burberry turned over $500,000 from sales of bags in Roblox… the list goes on.

All this variety in effectiveness would tend to suggest that Web3 is very much like any other media arena, in that there are good Web3 ideas and bad ones; good Web3 executions and bad ones. It is our job – and our chance – to harness the creative possibilities of this new world on behalf of our brands, or our clients’ brands, charting a course for them with equal measures of pragmatism and receptiveness.

Lest we forget, there were plenty of naysayers who announced with certainty that 'social media would never catch on', or even that 'social media may be fine for cat videos, but it's not right for my brand' – now revealed, of course, to be an absurdly simplistic view that ignored enormous opportunities.

You don’t find many people in the Nevada desert when Burning Man isn’t happening.

Alex Manning, Cult

Cast your minds back to the summer of 2009, when Facebook had 250 million active users, Twitter had around 35 million, and YouTube had 100 million viewers in the United States alone. At the same time, and in spite of these numbers, a survey of marketing professionals conducted by McCann Erickson Bristol found that fully 14% of them still believed that social media was 'just a fad’ (some fad!), while two-thirds admitted that they did not know how to use it for the purposes of marketing.

In that same year, the MD of one media consultancy (who shall remain nameless) was quoted in Marketing Week as stating that there wasn’t ‘a significant consumer opportunity’ in the role the internet would play in long-form content distribution.

Of course, wisdom after the event is the easiest possession of all; and most detractors of the potential of Web3 are more nuanced than this. Their criticisms focus less on the blanket concept, and more on the current shortcomings of specific platforms; and again, there are parallels with the dawn of social media here.

In those early days of social media, as various new platforms rise and fell in the battle for supremacy, no one could really tell you which of these platforms would end up scaling massively. For every person predicting the growth of Facebook or Instagram, there were those placing their bets on MySpace and Google+. And of course, as late as November 2017, few outside of China would have anticipated the staggering pace of TikTok’s ascent; less than four years later, it surpassed the milestone of one billion monthly active users.

The point is that marketers who are open-minded to exploring Web3 platforms today should be less concerned about longevity, and more about immediate relevance and impact. The question to ask is whether each platform’s unique features and capabilities can be harnessed in some way for your brand, right now.

In 2013, Lowe’s didn’t worry about whether Vine would still be around in a decade; instead, they leapt in and explored how the platform could work for them, creating their ‘Fix in Six’ campaign that delivered over 15 million earned impressions and multiple industry awards (available for perusal in Contagious’ case study library).

At the same time, it’s important to acknowledge that critiques of Web3 are not baseless, and scrutiny is important.

Yes, daily active user numbers on some Web3 platforms remain low (though not quite as low as some publications have gleefully – and overly hastily – reported). If, however, you intend to create some kind of digital experience for your existing brand fans to attend, bringing them into an exciting and immersive virtual space, then this isn’t necessarily a problem. You don’t find many people in the Nevada desert when Burning Man isn’t happening.

If, on the other hand, you are looking to introduce your brand to an entirely new audience, without driving traffic via more typical channels, then the number of daily active users is a more pressing consideration, and you may be better served by activating within a better-populated Web3 space.

Perhaps the main thing that proponents and detractors of Web3 have in common is their tendency for hyperbole. Web3’s most zealous champions try to represent today’s platforms & technology as something that they’re simply not right now, and perhaps never will be, providing ample fuel for the cynics to decry the whole thing as a futile and doomed exercise.

And without doubt, the technology has some way to go. Matthew Ball, entrepreneur and author of the excellent The Metaverse and How it Will Revolutionize Everything, acknowledges that ‘the full vision of the Metaverse is decades away…but the term has become so recently popular because we can feel it beginning.’

These present technological limitations should give us pause for thought, and a dose of realism – but they should not deter us from intrigue altogether.

If you’ve read this far, you’ll have worked out by now that I have a dog in this fight; I’m optimistic about the creative and commercial possibilities of Web3. But I’d like to think that this piece will be read not as an unconditional defense for every new Web3 stunt rolling off the production line, but an exhortation to marketers and agencies to set aside the cynicism and exercise a policy of open-mindedness and experimentation. It could be a lot of fun.

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