Approaches and solutions for brand safety in the current incarnation of the internet are by now well established. Increasingly, however, the big social media platforms that brands want to place their advertisements on have become embroiled in controversy and questions about how they should be governed.
Back in 2020, consumer goods giant Unilever paused its Facebook and Twitter advertising, citing the polarized atmosphere in the US, with other companies including Coca-Cola following suit. As we move into the next generation of the internet in the form of Web 3, there is a clear opportunity to reset the status quo, ensuring that ethical online behaviours are built into the mega platforms of tomorrow and that the division that has haunted Web 2 is banished to the history books.
With that in mind, how exactly should companies go about ensuring brand safety in the metaverse?
What are the Risks Inherent to Virtual Worlds?
The metaverse currently exists in an unregulated state, outside the influence of the norms and rules that brand managers today work with. While the kinds of content that advertisements might appear alongside today is endlessly varied, in the metaverse brands will have to contend with that same variability in the actual platforms hosting the content as well. Consider a YouTube video. Depending on the content contained within, brands are able to choose whether they want to appear alongside it. What they are always assured of is that the space in which they appear, the YouTube page, is consistent. But for a video being shown in a virtual world, there is a whole new dimension to consider in the form of the space itself.
Not only that, but there is also the behaviour of users to consider. While the worst that can be done on social media currently is typically an abusive comment, the interactivity of the metaverse opens up a lot of possibilities for misbehavior. Case in point, the users who threw virtual tomatoes at a video discussion on race hosted within Fortnite. Considering the adverse behaviour of users adds a whole new dimension to consider for brands.
How can Brands Enter the Metaverse Safely?
While Web 3 platforms such as Decentraland or The Sandbox are still in their early stages, existing Web 2 platforms such as Minecraft already have extensive teams of human moderators alongside artificial intelligence detection capabilities to filter out bad content. Despite this, those acting in bad faith are still more than able to slip through the cracks. It seems the anonymity afforded by a virtual environment people can freely log in and out of will inevitably lead to behavior that is undesirable. When it comes to branded spaces, users have the potential to occupy or even vandalize those spaces and repurpose them to different means.
Ultimately, the unpredictability inherent to the space will mean brand managers have to be on their toes, but it may in fact be more risky to just leave users to create unlicensed copies. Instead, brands should be leading from the front to ensure control of their message to head off users creating whole new associations for existing properties. Just look at Winnie the Pooh, who became the subject of a popular meme used to insult President Xi Jinping of China – resulting in a ban on releasing the film Christopher Robin within China.
While numerous options exist for brands wanting to enter the metaverse, such as buying digital land outright, leasing it from landowners such as Admix means brands don’t have to navigate these issues themselves.
Winning the Metaverse
The relationship of brands with the metaverse is far from totally unprecedented. The existing experience brands have of advertising in virtual worlds is in video games, whether that’s via in-game billboards advertising real products as far back as 2008 or the inclusion of a real vehicle in a racing game.
There is a clear throughline from the video games of today to the metaverses of tomorrow, so it’s worth understanding how ads can currently be delivered to gamers in a manner that is both unobtrusive and brand safe. A prominent example of this is the tie-ins many brands have had with games such as Fortnite, but brands can also take advantage of non-bespoke forms of advertising.
The Admix platform is one example, allowing developers to place advertising space within game worlds in a seamless fashion. Admix also led the way to help brands better understand the impact of their advertisements in virtual worlds, partnering with Integral Ad Science to build an external verification system for in-play advertisements to measure viewability.
There is a huge community of gamers ready to migrate to the metaverse (well over 3 billion by some estimates) – a trend which has only been boosted by the COVID-19 pandemic and the way it has kept people indoors.
The Rules of Engagement
As we enter the Web 3 era, there are increasingly loud calls to build safety into the infrastructure of virtual worlds, before they take off. One such initiative comes from the OASIS Consortium, which has released a set of standards for ethical online behaviours in the metaverse prioritising openness, accountability, security, innovation and sustainability (hence the name).
OASIS is calling on metaverse platforms to pledge themselves to user safety standards in a form of self-regulation in line with the decentralized approach to the metaverse at large. That’s in order to avoid the problem social media platforms are today facing, where a reluctance to address safety and privacy themselves has led to standoffs with governments and calls for increased regulation.
OASIS says it is hoping to work with the creators of the metaverse themselves in order to think about safety before it becomes a widespread problem. It remains to be seen just how far such standards will be adopted, but the consortium has secured the involvement of metaverse luminaries such as Roblox and Riot Games, as well as advertising and PR giant Dentsu – a positive development for brand safety in the metaverse.
It’s clear the metaverse represents both an opportunity and a challenge to brands. Compared to traditional media, it’s much harder to totally assure safety because getting involved in any capacity means being open to unintended uses. What they stand to gain, however, are new and innovative ways of connecting with consumers. What is clear is that whether a brand chooses to become involved or not, there is every chance the users will drag them in regardless.
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