Presence is more important now than ever. Many around the globe are staying home and limiting their physical, social contact. Families and friends connect via Zoom calls or drive-by birthday parties. Professionals spend countless hours on screens talking with colleagues and clients. "Zoom fatigue" is a new saying among remote workers.
Spatial presence - the feeling of "being there" in a virtual space can unlock doors to social experiences and give people a sense of belonging and fulfillment in a world changed by a pandemic that keeps many physically apart.
The hours we spend on social media have also increased. A recent Statista survey showed that 29.7 percent of US social media users used social media 1-2 additional hours per day. eMarketer notes that 51% of US adults are using social media at higher rates during the pandemic.
Social virtual reality, or social VR, has seen an increase in users too. Social VR apps like Rec Room, BigScreen, VRChat, and AltSpace have all seen an increase in traffic. AltSpace is even hosting one of Burning Man's virtual worlds from this year's virtual event. This week, Facebook announced the launch of the public beta for its social VR experience, Horizon,
"I believe the next phase of social media is presence," says early beta Horizon content creator and social media consultant, Navah Berg. "Imagine a place where a brand can invite their brand ambassadors to try out a product without hopping on an airplane? A place a brand can launch a press release without writing a press release but actually being there and sharing the news with a community of journalists in a get together in social VR. There are so many opportunities for brands and content creators. I can't wait to see what happens next."
Berg adds that currently, in social media, people learn through shared passions and build relationships by relaying stories/content via a screen. For her, VR takes it to another dimension, where new friends and new memories converge through an immersive lens that feels as though they are in the same shared space while given tools to use together, before ever meeting IRL. Social VR allows you to learn and build meaningful relationships with your audience by being there creating together vs. watching from a screen in a flat 2D newsfeed.
Sneak peeks of Horizon screenshots are flooding social media. Facebook dropped the gameplay trailer for Facebook Horizon after months of anticipation. The trailer shows avatars playing games in Horizon, building their own worlds, and having fun with other avatars. Facebook Horizon's beta access is currently invite-only.
Facebook has been one of the flagship companies for building VR headsets and promoting social virtual reality. The company bought Oculus in 2014, and since then, they've released a variety of headsets from the tethered Oculus Rift to the standalone Oculus Quest. For them, virtual reality isn't just another way to get people to use Facebook. They see it as the next computing platform that will "help people feel more present with each other, even when we're apart" – whether at work or at play.
As the pandemic continues to affect our society and the way people socialize, social VR apps and experiences like Horizon can give people a place to gather, play, and create as they may have in real life. Social VR offers those types of interactions in one place - one where users are already connected to their friends who have a compatible VR device.
Facebook Horizon may create a shift in what "social media" means. Instead of consuming articles or reading friend's updates, Horizon offers a different type of online social interaction. Gameplay or world-building takes some of the strain out of being social that feeds creation.
So what do social VR and spatial presence have to do with the future of social media marketing? Well, everything.
Facebook defines virtual, social presence as "authentic and lifelike collaboration between people and colleagues in a virtual setting…" It's where anyone can manipulate objects, use their hands, and have a sense of touch. Avatars display the same expressions as their human counterparts. Spatial presence includes audio, where the closer you move to a noise the louder it gets. Horizon provides marketing opportunities in three areas: representation, play, and world-building.
Suddenly, relating to a target audience isn't through ads (text, image, or video). It's becoming part of a customer's world and presenting a brand or business as a real being they can interact with in a natural way. Facebook is demonstrating this in Horizon by deploying staff who will act as guides or hosts in public spaces. Facebook is suddenly changing the customer service experience from submitting a request to being able to virtually walk up and talk to a Facebook employee.
One of the features of Horizon is playing games like mini golf, escape rooms, paint balloon, or a battlefield with a hybrid sword. Facebook wants Horizon to be collaborative and interactive. This gives brands a chance to get in on the action. Who wouldn't want to see Wendy's vs Burger King in a virtual paint ball fight - the winning team gets a free burger.
Part of Horizon is world-building. Marketing in virtual reality takes a different approach in this new evolving space. Companies could build their own world for users to explore, hiding Easter Eggs (hidden items places in movies or games) for explorers to find leading to discount codes or free items. Companies could harness the excitement that Ready Player One brought to VR by building a world where one lucky winner could rule it for a day.
Creating a world for a brand within Horizon or branded virtual objects that Horizon users can reuse in their own designs are one way to take part in this new, social world. Instead of shooting a commercial in real life (which may be impacted due to the pandemic) brands could shoot one in Horizon, using real platform users as extras. The commercial (and making of it) could be livestreamed to Facebook and shared across platforms.
Collaboration, gameplay, and world-building are all tools marketers need to get familiar with. Social presence in spatial computing will only get more advanced, especially as companies like Facebook ease the barrier to entry. Liam McKill, a Horizon beta world-builder said, "My biggest piece of advice for new creators in Horizon is to experiment constantly. You are in a world that can't be broken and is still relatively unexplored;"
Marketers should take that piece of advice to heart. Marketers would do well to experiment now, so they can be part of the virtual worlds like Horizon.
The future of communications is presence. The convergence of both the physical and virtual worlds will create new opportunities in the future in the way friends, families, and even colleagues connect. The future of connection will push the boundaries of today's technology, one virtual world at a time. The metaverse is coming, and it's a very big deal.