data and identity, gaming


Sarah Stringer, EVP, Head of U.S. Media Partnerships, dentsu 

Siloed avatars as another set of ‘eyeballs’ 

The rising popularity of virtual reality and the growing amount of time spent by consumers with gaming as their media of choice is leading brands to deploy activations that allow them to expose their products and services, or virtual surrogates for their products and services, to consumers’ avatars in the context of popular gaming franchises, Nike’s inauguration of ‘NIKELAND’ within Roblox being one of the latest examples of this trend.1 While these types of experiments are crucial for brands to gather some learnings on how to capture attention in the future, they are at times mistakenly referred to in the press as launches ‘in the Metaverse’. It’s important for brands to make a distinction between open world games that are currently in market, like Fortnite or Roblox, and the possibilities that exist within them and the new paradigm of customer behaviors that will emerge when the fully interoperable Metaverse will become a reality: when this happens, we will have an extension of the internet into an open ecosystem made of hybrid, shared spaces that blend physical, digital and virtual realities.  

In other words, a consumer will be able to seamlessly move from an experience within Fortnite to a different virtual world, potentially leveraging the same avatar across both, and then even migrate to correlated non-virtual digital and physical experiences without disruption. To give a practical example, today users collaborate in the professional sphere through VR within Meta’s Horizon Workrooms, but their presence in this space is limited to a siloed avatar that they created ad hoc for it. Tomorrow, they may be able to show up at a Horizon Workrooms ‘dress down Friday’ as their Cyberpunk 2077 ‘selves’, without having to interrupt their experience. 

We are already witnessing within the current explosion of media channels that “how different advertising messages work is a function of a combination of circumstances – the message and creative, the context, the device, etc.” and that “viewability and other device measures can be quite arbitrary proxies for real attention.”2 The evolution of the notion of identity in the Metaverse will determine how brands engage consumers in the future and will create new dimensions to how attention is created, captured and measured, so brands need to start thinking beyond ‘virtual eyeballs’. 

Governance and monetization of ‘entry points’ and ‘translation points’ 

In a future where a consumer’s identity will be refracted and fragmented into several virtual ‘selves’, how should brands start thinking about advertising, audiences and data? In most virtual environments today, the users’ virtual identity is coupled with the application, but this is sometimes frustrating and definitely at odds with how most imagine Web 3.0 decentralization. Once seamless transition across Metaverse experiences will be available, who will enable and be in control of the ‘translation points’ between environments?  

The literature around the rise of the Metaverse is ripe with the promise of interoperability, but in fact what we see happening today among the big technology players that enable the majority of our online experiences goes in the opposite direction. In the MarTech and AdTech industry, we have been using the expression “walled gardens” to describe the closed ecosystems controlled by tech giants like Google, Apple or Facebook/Meta. These companies are leveraging their vast collections of consumer data and act as centralized operators for digital advertising on their platforms. However, the size of these ecosystems and what is happening within them suggests that “continent” would be a better definition: rather than ‘fencing gardens’, these players are contributing to a digital rift that is siloing the open web into ecosystems that play by their own rules of data handling and measurement, so that they can best monetize their infrastructure.3 Very much like it’s happening with digital continents today, will the ‘entry points’ we use to access the Metaverse have a repercussion on the identity that we will carry out across our hybrid experience within it, even when we migrate to different systems? For brands, will ‘middle-man’ companies that provide Metaverse ‘entry points’ be the primary counterparts they need to engage with to activate advertising? 

The other aspect that will have a major implication for brands is the governance of ‘entry points’ and ‘translation points’. A good way to think about this is to take the number of subscription services for audio-visual content we have today and how the content offer in each of them changes according to the VPN in use and multiply that level of complexity exponentially. Will there be a business for companies helping users manage, retain and export aspects of their avatars across different environments? 

When all the entertainment we experience will be connected within the Metaverse and therefore become more interactive, the behaviors that occur within it will have even bigger repercussions in our ‘offline’ lives: how will governments fight misinformation, predatory behaviors and hate speech with their specific legislation if our experiences depend on ‘entry points’ and transcend the country where our physical selves connect? Today, different legislations are having an impact on how brands are able to treat audience data. Will this tension grow or wane in Web 3.0? 

Building currency and security for the ‘self-wallet’, a new paradigm of user identity 

If zero-party data, meaning the data that consumers intentionally and proactively share with brands, is a coveted currency now, this will be the case even more when people’s presence in the Metaverse is refracted across multiple avatars. Brands that garner the information necessary to market to the ‘skeleton key’ that will persist along with a user while they cross-over between different environments will have a significant advantage against their competitors, as they will be able to have more complete insights on their audiences’ behaviors and will deliver contextual experiences that are more accurate and not duplicative. 

There’s an expectation that when Web 3.0 fully comes to fruition users will be able to exercise ownership over their virtual self through blockchain and decentralization in ways that, at the moment, are precluded from them. When this occurs, the continuous identity or ‘skeleton key’ that persists across environment-specific avatars will become not only a more rounded online ‘self’, it will also become a ‘wallet’ in the sense that consumers will be empowered to network the information contained within it with brands and advertisers in exchange for perks or straight up currency. In addition to this, a ‘self-wallet’ could increment or decrease in value based on the number and quality of NFT artifacts and experiences that become tied with it throughout its existence in the Metaverse.  

Brands will not only need to explore new forms of value exchange to get better insights on consumers’ identity; they will also need to invest in defrauding to make sure they are not giving rewards away for free. The new generation of consumers born in the age of the Metaverse will be comprised of users that are accustomed to coding their own experiences. As we are already seeing within open world gaming communities and the burgeoning creator economy, audiences will expect to be able to architect and take over environments as opposed to experience them just how they are being presented by publishers. Inevitably, brands and publishers will need to take measures to protect themselves from scammers and piracy, so they don’t end up offering access, perks or artefacts in exchange for non-human interactions. In addition to this, they’ll need to understand how they can intersect with, or even monetize the reseller market for their branded artefacts. 

How brands should start preparing for audience interactions in the age of the Metaverse 

While the emergence of the fully interoperable Metaverse is still somewhat distant, brands should start developing strategies to ensure their advertising and experiential offer is more relevant to the ecosystem that is starting to take shape.  

We don’t know how hard it will be to ‘market to the persistent self’, as opposed to ‘marketing to the avatar’ and we don’t know what products and services will be more valued in the future, but we know that, very much as it occurs in gaming today, users’ tolerance for interruptive advertising will be extremely low. Brand messages need to be highly contextual, starting with virtual and gaming activations planned for today, and they will need to be even more contextual to the environment they are integrated with, if identity fragmentation into multiple avatars will leave businesses in the dark and unable to make assumptions about the audience populating it. 

The advertising model needs to be flipped, from a quantity play that values impressions to a quality play that is focused on creating value and ‘buzz’ through exclusivity. In an ecosystem where everyone can seamlessly migrate across an endless number of experiences, scarcity will progressively become more attractive and newsworthy; brands should test the waters within the gaming space now, with more limited-edition ad drops, and start building a value proposition based on contextual interactions in exchange for permissions and insights. In order to do so, they need to start investing in a safe and compliant zero-data infrastructure as the backbone of their next generation of hybrid customer experiences.