Remember the cringe-fest when Mark Zuckerberg unveiled Meta's Horizon Worlds last year? The avatars had no legs, the graphics seemed ripped from a '90s video game, and the virtual Eiffel Tower looked like a student project gone wrong. Reports that metaverse platforms like Decentraland were seeing as few as 379 daily active users confirmed to skeptics that the hype machine was fully out of control. Luckily, marketers are nothing if not agile – just look at 2023’s conference agendas and you’ll struggle to find a metaverse session, as the entire industry has swiftly moved onto AI. 

However, as someone who has written extensively about how the secret to spotting future trends is to look at innovations, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on Zuckerberg’s latest metaverse experience – his appearance with Lex Friedman in a virtual interview that's got everyone talking. 

True, there’s a certain irony in picking two of the least expressive humans to demo an 'immersive experience', as Friedman himself noted. But given Friedman’s famously unemotional demeanour, when he gushes about how “incredible” the experience is twenty-two times during the interview and how he is "almost at a loss for words…it feels like the future," it's hard not to pay attention.

But before you rush off to draft your next metaverse brief, let’s take a moment to think what this means for marketers. Or more importantly, what it doesn’t mean. 

First, it’s important to remember that this doesn’t mean the metaverse is suddenly upon us. Both Zuckerberg and Friedman had to sit for hours, having very detailed scans of their faces taken. The Meta CEO says that their aim is to reduce this down to a self-serve model with scans done on your phone, but he admits they don’t know how feasible it will be to maintain the same level of realism, and how that might affect the experience. 

Friedman commented that it felt like an uncanny valley has been crossed. But conducting an interview with two people in a dark room is very different to the infinite, rich, massively-multiplayer virtual worlds that people imagined when they hyped up the metaverse as a destination where people will go for open-ended socialising and entertainment. The impact of hyper-realistic video calls will still be profound (re-opening all the post-Covid questions around remote working) but it is a big redefinition of the metaverse, especially for marketers. 

Because time doesn’t always equal money. Mary Meeker had a famous slide showing the gap between consumers’ time with digital media and advertising spend, using it to predict an inevitable growth in digital marketing dollars, as the industry caught up. Yet that is not always the case. You probably spend hours each day in WhatsApp and on video calls, yet advertising isn’t appropriate for these very personal communications spaces. If 1:1 communication is the first major use case for the metaverse then the marketing opportunities will be minimal in the short term.  

Finally, we know that Meta isn’t the only player here. Apple might have studiously avoided using the now-tarnished M-word at the launch of its Vision Pro headset, but whether you call it spatial computing or the metaverse, it is clear that 2024 will see renewed interest in virtual worlds, especially as you can bet that Apple’s premium user experience will be as good (if not better) than Zuckerberg’s Friedman interview. 

So, is the metaverse back? Well, it never really went away – it's just going through its awkward teenage years, trying to figure out what it wants to be when it grows up. 

Henry will be a regular contributor to MAD//Insight