Virtual worlds, through games like Fortnite and Roblox, have become an important part of young people’s social lives - RAIN’s Matt Lang explores how brands can help rather than hinder the experience.

Marketers and brand stewards should always be searching for opportunities to drive outsized value. In today’s environment, that often comes in the form of adopting a new channel early while the sandbox is still being defined. 

Platforms like Twitch, TikTok and Clubhouse are emerging as spaces where brands can exist and capture some attention without extensive pay-to-play strategies (for now). However, many people are not only choosing to spend their time on new online services, but in different worlds altogether. 

A new league of online gaming titles and platforms are taking over where players are able to transcend reality for wholly new and inventive alternatives. Fortnite, Animal Crossing, Minecraft, and Roblox are the elite class of games skyrocketing in usage and poised to continue trending upward. 

Roblox in particular has sparked the interest of investors and marketers alike with 150 million monthly active users and a majority of players under 13 years old, which suggests the next generation of consumers may have already found their preferred digital space. 

These massive online multiplayer games (in many cases they aren’t even games at all, but worlds to explore freely) are likely to be more than just a fad. Instead, many believe they are harbingers of what will likely become mainstream platforms for teens and young adults. 

Venture capitalist and media analyst Matthew Ball has deemed these worlds “digital theme parks” and called them “The Most Important Media Businesses of the Future”.  Based on the audience engagement and early use cases by companies, this isn’t hyperbole. 

To date, we’ve seen major artists like Marshmello and Travis Scott break records holding virtual concerts on Fortnite as well as major IP holders like Disney using Fortnite’s world to promote franchises like Star Wars. Andreesen Horowitz partner Jonathan Lai believes we’re just at the start of what will be possible for players in these digital environments with AI and UGC enabling larger, more immersive and personalized experiences. With the opportunities growing by the day, now is the time for brands to jump in.  

A few intrepid brands have pioneered these emerging spaces, testing the reception of branded content and sponsorships with gamers to learn what works. Most recently we’ve seen Verizon create a virtual replica of Raymond James Stadium using Fortnite’s Creative Mode for gamers to gather and interact with one another as part of their Super Bowl marketing efforts. 

However, we’ve also seen other everyday brands exploring these platforms – take Marc Jacobs’ custom avatar outfits in Animal Crossing or Nike’s Air Max Day activation on Roblox as examples of what we’ll likely be seeing a lot more of soon. 

For brands who are on the verge of exploring these worlds, but are not sure where or how to start, the following are five mantras to bear in mind as you design your entrance.

  1. Enable self-expression

One of the biggest near-term opportunities for brands is to provide players with new ways to represent themselves. Marc Jacobs and Nike are good examples of how to start.

Beyond avatar items and outfits, think about how your brand can enhance someone’s representation of themself in the game. Digital items and character apparel are a starting point, but there are also virtual homes and other spaces that players inhabit where brands can offer meaningful possessions. 

  1. Find your intersection

Before entering these new worlds, it’s critical that brands define where they (and their marketing) fit in. There isn’t yet a standard structure for advertising or the expectation of sponsored breaks in the action, so brands need to be extra careful not to appear as an interruption, or worse, be perceived as an intrusion.

While some clear alignments have already surfaced (e.g. fashion companies providing clothes for characters), perhaps more inventive ideas will emerge where businesses can offer helpful branded tools to support the creation of user-generated spaces or host unique, interactive virtual events. 

  1. Define new forms of value

Consider how your brand can go beyond taking advantage of the opportunity available to it on these platforms and create value for the community in these worlds.

Is there a digital good or virtual collectible that could allow players to derive their own reward from your brand’s work? One can imagine something like McDonald’s Happy Meal collectibles going virtual. Perhaps a brand could develop something as audacious as what the NBA has created with its wildly successful Top Shot program – a new marketplace of digital goods for players to participate in. 

  1. Listen to players

When evaluating any new endeavor, most individuals will turn to subject matter experts to help inform an approach. These new gaming platforms should be treated no differently. Does that mean you need to hire a panel of teenagers to instruct your marketing strategy? Not the worst idea, but help might be closer than you think. Many Gen Z and millennials that your brand may already work with as influencers, or employ as content creators, are likely also players. Don’t be afraid to brainstorm with them, ask for their input and include them in tissue sessions before deciding your strategy. 

  1. Try it out

Too often, brands dive into new channels or platforms without understanding the culture or character of the environment. Awkwardly jumping in on a Twitter trend, creating a Snapchat filter no one asked for, launching a podcast without an audience… the list goes on. 

These efforts always fall flat. Younger audiences and gamers won’t hesitate to call out bad brand activations. To make sure your brand gains enough institutional knowledge to operate, you should have someone from the team actually try playing the game for a week and learn what it’s like. This will almost certainly lead to better ideas that will resonate more with the audience there. 

Are we heading toward a Westworld reality or something akin to The OASIS from Ready Player One? Quite possibly. And you can be sure companies and brands will be following us there. Figuring out how to assimilate respectfully and add value to these shared experiences will take time – best to start learning now.