After six years of divisive, disrupted life, marketers must be prepared to deliver healing experiences in an authentic way, and we don’t mean “authentic” in the Elon Musk verified Twitter account sense.
Technologies have come to define the communities they support; that thinking should be reversed. The challenge in 2023 will be to bring disparate digital experiences into harmony to establish enduring branded relationships through online experiences, promotions, and 1-1 interactions. The trends are part of a “Great Meta-reversal,” a turn to focus on the content and experience, including the role of “generative AI,” that creates enduring communities instead of the technology of Web 3.0.
The digital customer relationship has grown chock-a-block and the resulting experience often feels disconnected, arbitrary, disturbingly creepy, and alienating because personal information is misused. Instead of building a separate experience for each mode of interaction, brands now have the tools to integrate the consumer relationship across many digital touchpoints.
For more than a decade, “mobile-first” experience defined app and site development, and rightly so as smartphones have become second nature for 6.5 billion users. But the customer relationship doesn’t stop at the smartphone screen. Computation has migrated from the clean room to the living room, car, and into the great outdoors. Digital experience must bridge the phone, tablet, TV, and OOH experience. Managing those connections to create an integrated brand experience is marketing’s challenge.
Rather than segmenting an audience and telling them what they will want next – trend-chasing – it’s time to become a trend-driver by listening across many media to understand what customers want, then deliver on those desires. Those signals are everywhere. For example, “co-watching” points to a time when experiences must be built for phones, tablets and television – the streaming wars gave birth to an emerging community-enabling platform that makes rich interaction possible in all content, even old episodes of Seinfeld.
The anchor that will hold many experiences together is the digital backend, particularly the CRM or customer database that gives marketers clear views into customer needs. For many marketers, the immersive virtual worlds of the metaverse seem to be the answer, but the dream has yet to bear fruit. There’s a simple reason why.
Use the metaverse, don’t let it use you
Marketers building isolated, one-off promotions in the metaverse fail to catalyze communities. People need the ability to influence our surroundings, contribute value and reap rewards, as well as express ideas that do more than shock and amaze for a few moments at a time.
The revelations that several metaverse destinations fail to attract viable audiences is the most important lesson of 2022. These virtual stores, clubs, and challenges are more like a dying shopping mall than a vibrant environment. When it was disclosed that Decentraland had attracted only a few dozen active users, the company countered that the definition of “active user” was incorrect. Decentraland pointed to the approximately 8,000 people who also visited, arguing that they were a viable audience for brands spending millions to attract eyeballs. That participation rate means that less than four-tenths of one percent of the audience was doing anything worth watching or commenting about.
Other metaverse platforms, like Roblox, Second Life, and Minecraft attract crowds every day. They do drive viable active participation rates because they do not constrain users to the rules of one place or challenge.
In 2023, focus on the members rather than the destinations. Instead of a virtual store or club where people are invited to hang out, brands will distribute virtual gear, custom avatar skins, and other movable assets that consumers can share as they roam in the metaverse. In other words, after trying to build Disneyland in the metaverse, it’s time to think in terms of selling Disney gear and collectibles that travel with customers across their virtual worlds.
Cookies finally crumble
Following years of threats to ban third-party cookies that vacuum up personal data, Google will probably follow the rest of the browser makers and finally ban these intrusive cookies. The tangential interactions of the third-party cookie era were mostly noise, albeit more productive noise than previous one-way media.
After cookies, the first-party KPI will be how many times a customer interacted with a brand directly, and there is immense opportunity in that shift to intimacy. We’re entering an era when brands can craft an automated personality or many personalities, but it must be done carefully and with even more creative and strategic involvement than today. These tools will identify the moments when a brand message, promotion or, even an opportunity for a customer to contribute to the next-generation product design, can deepen the relationship.
The new interactions will be built using newsletters, podcasts, video clips, pro tips and how-to explainers, and other one-to-one interactions combined to support personalized customer relationships. ChatGPT and its generative AI competitors will certainly play a role in making personalization efficient and effective. Marketers will bring all these channels to life as a coherent experience using CRM and other integrations as well as AI-assisted content and social experiences.
Keep this firmly in mind: the “smartest” generative AI is still the product of human inputs, including the initial messaging training provided by creatives and the need to curate and support generative AI with human overseers. That overseer category will touch a wide range of marketing and advertising roles, and each will need to find ways to add value to the automation.
The metaverse can play an important role in the first-party marketing environment. Keep an eye on “digital twin” technology that supports comprehensive virtual models of a real-world building, city, or enterprise. These tools let brands expose tangible business issues, social and moral questions, and future designs to the public for participatory discussion. And in the post-cookie environment, influential people will play an even more important role.
Individual brand advocates, or “influencers,” come in all sizes, hues, and attitudes. While a few people can move millions with a word, we need to engage millions of people who can change market dynamics by talking to their friends.
Gen Z is not the only target for influencer marketing, it just happens to be the generation that came of age when mass media evaporated into a mist of connectivity in which audiences of a few thousand or few hundred thousand can make a brand hot or not. More than 15 years ago, Technorati founder Dave Sifry called this world the “magic middle,” where brands can make influencers and support growing communities of shared interest.
Micro-influencers will play roles similar to retail clerks or local critics who bring products and services to life with engaging, locally relevant stories. The question for marketers is, how can you find and engage these people? Each new star your brand makes raises your brand flag higher.
Don’t shy away from debates
Business must come to grips with its expanded social and political role. 2023 marks the 30th anniversary of the Mosaic browser that spawned commercial internet and the identity marketing and politics of today. The initial waves of technology birthed digital natives restless to see the benefit of their expanded influence. Engaging them, working with communities to solve their problems, and promoting influencers who can support (or harm) your brand are complicated decisions that expose you to criticism. While some argue brands and CEOs should stay quiet, we think silence will be more costly at a time when consumers want to engage with brands that share their values.
The good news is that while people talking may not always say what you would like them to say about your products or services, they will be talking about your brand a lot more.
The meta-reversal forces marketers to concentrate on the customer, and those conversations are the raw material for a revolution in business design and brands’ roles in society.
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