Business-to-business marketers were slow to adopt digital platforms. Some were tortoise slow. Now with the metaverse suddenly thrust upon them, how should they be reacting? With most experts agreeing that a wait-and-see approach will just be history repeating itself, The Drum explores how and where B2B marketers should get involved as part of our Metaverse Deep Dive.
Trade shows, product demonstrations, client meetings, customer service and advertisements are among the core pillars of business-to-business (B2B) marketing. Each of which now has the potential to be radically altered by the metaverse.
While it’s clear the promise of avatars striking a multi-million dollar, multi-year deal with a virtual handshake isn’t going to happen any time soon, the fact remains it’s certainly within the realm of possibility. And at the very least, the beloved B2B sales funnel is already being impacted by emerging technologies at a rate faster than most would have expected.
If anyone is onboard with this, it is Meta (formerly Facebook), which is all-in on the possibilities. “As we do with all our products, we create them for people first, and our top priority is getting the metaverse right for them,” says Michelle Klein, Meta’s vice-president of global business marketing. “Of course, the metaverse will unlock tremendous opportunities for businesses as well – and we’re going to build tools that help them be successful.”
As these tools are being built, it’s important to start planning now, says Rob Davis, head of innovation at Ogilvy. “There is a clear need for a vision strategy looking at least 10 years ahead, but starting now – or yesterday. Few brands have taken that first step, B2B or not.”
So, what should B2B marketers be thinking about first? Davis says start with “the value of the metaverse which is experiential relationship building with customers and prospects through digital worlds.”
After all, B2B decision makers have now been trained to take meetings through Zoom, to sit through product demos via webinars and have grown to expect excellence in customer service without even hearing a human voice. Only three years ago, all of these developments would have sounded laughable.
Taking a look three years down the road, what’s to say things won’t look radically different again? Especially given the fact that the inevitable return to office isn’t likely to resemble the pre-pandemic era.
At this moment with the metaverse blooming, the question is: “Do B2B brands want to be starting their journey on the morning after the world has changed?” says Reuben Webb, chief creative officer at Stein IAS. “It’s time to explore the next B2B frontier, now.”
Product demos and trade shows, metaverse style
Nike, Disney, Gucci, Louis Vuitton, as well as other consumer brands, have already created trailblazing marketing efforts within the metaverse. B2B marketers are next.
Sephora, which Meta’s Klein cited as one of her favorite marketing examples in the virtual world, launched a new fragrance while its stores were closed during lockdown. Sephora partnered with researchers to help identify how customers could use sight to trigger the sense of smell through certain colors, animations and graphics.
“It built an incredible AR component on Instagram, where it literally brought to life the smell of the fragrance using visual stimulation with fantastic results,” says Klein. “B2B marketers will have the same opportunity to offer their clients options to demo suites of products, customize their offerings and even interact in real-time to give detailed feedback.”
Of course, there are logistical issues. There is plenty of discussion about how quickly virtual reality headsets will proliferate, the role augmented reality will play and all the rest, but most experts agree the tools for accessing the metaverse are coming fast – especially with real 5G connectivity around the corner.
With that we can imagine product demos morphing from general explainer videos about snazzy new features into information that can be experienced on an individual’s own terms.
“Metaverse technology offers a remarkable level of customization and allows an individual to dictate how they experience that message,” says Simeon Edmunds, senior vice-president and creative director for Mediahub’s R+D Lab.
“Instead of just releasing a video about how your brand makes the best turbines and praying at least a few people reach the end of the video, now you can offer that same message in an environment where prospects can browse, interact and learn about the product on their own timelines, without the constraints of traditional video.”
Not everyone sees the world through Matrix-colored sunglasses. Mike Woosley, chief operating officer at Lotame, says: “Could I see Meta transforming some advertising with virtual tools and walk-throughs? Certainly, but by and large for the next five years in the B2B segment we see this as mostly gimmicks and parlor tricks… Facebook purchased Oculus five years ago and today the company sells just 5m or 6m headsets a year according to IDC. Is that sliver enough, in conjunction with its social traffic, to launch Meta and us into a new era of virtual reality? Uncertain.”
Office space in Decentraland and, oh yeah, advertisements
There has been lots of fantasy talk about the metaverse literally mirroring reality. While that is never going to happen, what will happen is an adoption of offline behaviors in this new dynamic setting.
For example, setting up an ’office’ in already-existing metaverse platform, not unlike Chipotle setting up a digital storefront in Roblox, is an option for avatar-attended meetings. Virtual pitches are already happening. And then there is the concept of simply going it alone and building a brand’s own custom metaverse, “which is something that is gaining traction,” says Ogilvy’s Davis.
This is in part because many B2B brands, and others, are arriving too late to virtual real estate. “Latecomers are finding it difficult to afford the cost of land in popular metaverses,” says Davis. “Plots that may have cost $5k to early adopters now sell for 10 to 30 times that.”
But what about the ads? Digital signage and billboards common to gaming is a simple route. Taken a step further, offering digital merchandise, avatars and skins is already common. Sponsorship of virtual concerts, events and special experiences for clients are also all on the table.
As for ad buying? “Programmatic advertising has the opportunity to become the predominant method of transacting with new targeting capabilities based on metaverse experiences and the expanded data signals the metaverse platforms will provide,” says David Olesnevich, chief product officer at IBM Watson Advertising. “So, with that we must start discussing: what does the next new hybrid physical/digital customer lifecycle look like? How is customer experience redefined? It’s exciting to think about the possibilities.”
But my B2B customer isn’t exactly hanging out in the metaverse, are they?
Much like the dawn of the internet with its dial-up screech and text-heavy HTML designs, this moment of digital adolescence isn’t for everyone.
But then again, there are certain desirable demographics to consider. Younger B2B buyers who grew up playing everything from Minecraft to World of Warcraft are less likely to find the metaverse concepts so alien. “It isn’t just about gaming. It’s an innovative way to connect with key B2B decision makers within companies particularly the younger cohort,“ says Michael McLaren, global chief executive of Merkle B2B. “An open mind is critical while costs are still low and measurement is in its infancy. There is a true first mover advantage.”
And let’s not forget our beloved geeks. “There is real opportunity for B2B marketers to reach certain segments and personality types. For example, data scientists, blockchain developers, security and risk officers audiences that are very hard to reach traditionally but feel comfortable in a virtual reality environment,” says Scott Gillum, founder of the B2B consultancy Carbon Design.
Gillum’s company just completed a research study that examined the cybersecurity space. It found that buyers value the knowledge that a representative provides but are not necessarily interested in a relationship. They prefer the option of having a ”virtual relationship that allows them to get the information they need without the commitment of a personal interaction.”
Forget chatbots, web3 can offer real customer support virtually
Considering that many B2B products are in fact commodities, customer service can make all the difference between keeping millions of revenue coming in one year versus kissing it goodbye the next.
That’s why B2B purveyors are very interested in the engagement that the metaverse can provide. “Instead of reaching out to a salesperson or experiencing wait times when it comes to account maintenance, enterprise help desks from the metaverse can help mid-level management and day-to-day operation leads feel confident about support,” says Merkle B2B’s McLaren.
Sure, chatbots serve a purpose and the telephone is fine if you don’t mind losing an hour of your day, but “customer service and sales via avatars and digital humans have a head start,” says Davis. “Everything from first-touch experiences to loyalty programs will be enhanced by the metaverse.”
Down the road, artificial intelligence can pave the way for lower customer acquisition costs, he says. And, overall, the metaverse offers a new chance to build first-party relationships, “which is a tantalizing solution given the increasing deprecation of third-party data due to privacy laws.”
Taking it a step further, “there is a strong argument to be made for a blockchain-based, end-to-end process using NFTs and smart contracts for wholesale purchase, anti-counterfeiting, logistics, warehousing, distribution, end user sales and warranties,” Davis says.
He imagines a complete ecosystem built upon blockchain that also opens the door to using metaverse platforms as a more integrated part of lead generation, nurture, service and loyalty. “If this sounds like an immutable customer relationship management system across the entire sales and service lifecycle, it is,” says Davis. “To put it simply, everything currently linked by bar codes, serial numbers, QR codes or manual systems can be integrated into synthesized fraud-proof, trackable data. This is especially attractive for account-based marketing and sales where high value business requires tight controls.”
Is that speculation? Sure. Could it happen? Sure. So, what’s a B2B marketer to do? Webb from Stein IAS says: “We should be conducting experiments right now to become intimate with what’s possible today, with what the interesting applications and opportunities are, with what the barriers are and with what the future holds. The metaverse could become a runaway freight train. Lots of companies and investors are scrambling to gain a foothold in what has been estimated to be a trillion-dollar revenue opportunity… The B2B community has a big voice and we should use it to help shape the metaverse we want.”
For more on the exciting, new opportunities for marketers in this rapidly evolving space, check out The Drum’s Metaverse hub.