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What Games Can Teach Us About Brand & User Safety in the Metaverse

Online games have been long-regarded as one of the most engaging entertainment mediums, and some of the most highly immersive experiences. As we look to the future of the internet, we have a lot to learn from game publishers and platforms - how they navigate community dynamics, deploy content moderation and integrate marketing opportunities that are valuable for both brands and players.

And with the rising popularity of AR and VR games, a key question for marketers is how they should understand the relationship between trust and safety for players, and brand safety for their campaigns and reputation.

After all, the global in-game advertising, which consists of both static and dynamically-inserted ads, as well as game-specific sponsorship-like executions such as branded items and content, is expected to reach 17.6B by 2030.

In this episode of the Brand & Safety Exchange podcast, we are honored to be joined by Jonathan Stringfield, VP of Global Business Research and Marketing at Activision Blizzard Media, who has spent much of his career studying game and social dynamics from a business perspective.

Activision Blizzard is a company specializing in the delivery of  in-game advertising for brands looking to grow their audiences within brand-safe environments. Jonathan works across all the B2B outreach of the company, with a team that ranges from data scientists to designers, talking to brands and agencies about the opportunities within gaming advertising. 

A Research-Based Approach To In-Game Advertisement

Platforms like Activision Blizzard work with marketers and brands across a range of categories to help them connect with players, without disruptions to the gaming experience and in ways that can drive real campaign effectiveness results. 

As a result, marketing in gaming platforms has evolved to include a wide variety of opportunities for brands  from simple banner ads to ads that appear native within a game's environment, such as on billboards, posters, and other virtual surfaces, to sophisticated campaigns that involve, for example, live events.

With a background in research and analysis, holding a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois where he focused on social networks, Jonathan has worked at several large platforms helping to shape sustainable digital advertising business models.  And he recently wrote a book about the dynamics within the in-game advertisement industry titled Get In The Game: How To Level Up Your Business with Gaming, eSports, and Emerging Technologies. 

Research is indeed key to this space. Jonathan confirms that a lot of work goes into making sure that the experiences of advertisement can add value for the players while also creating measurable ROI for advertisers. It's an interesting space,” he says in the show, “and so far, it's reintroducing what could be described as a long-standing legacy platform to marketers, making sure they can advertise in a way that's measured and in tune with their needs.”

And this is important for any brand looking to reach any demographic since games attract a large and diverse audience across a wide variety of demographics. According to a report by GlobalWebIndex, 45% of internet users worldwide play video games, and this number is increasing as gaming platforms become more accessible and mobile.

The Next Level: The Arrival Of The Metaverse

Jonathan has also been a “lifelong gaming fan,” as he describes himself, interested in how entertainment mediums could dialogue with individuals. 

Now, as the industry moves forward, his focus is increasingly shifting towards the potential of the metaverse, the natural evolution of the gaming experience. 

The idea of having cohabited virtual worlds has existed for some 40-50 years, alongside the general idea that people have socialised and made friends within these digital worlds has a long history. 

These new metaverse-like experiences will have some elements of a gaming environment and will need an understanding of the general psychology of immersive media. In Jonathan’s opinion, this technology, alongside Web3 more generally, is crucially related to the future of the Internet. 

With this new infrastructure, users can easily move their assets or content from one platform or virtual world to another, moving away from reliance of centralised intermediaries and infrastructure that the current web is based on..

At the same time, he remarks, it is important for the industry as a whole to acknowledge and accept what the problems are, such as exposure to privacy threats, user misbehavior or undesired advertisement.   And, similarly, look at the barriers and potential blockers that this infrastructure presents as well, from equal access to inclusive design and content moderation. 

With the arrival of Web3 and the metaverse, gameplay mechanics and community management will inform the broader landscape of what future immersive worlds might look like. 

One potential development in the metaverse is the use of non-intrusive, contextually relevant advertising. In the metaverse, digital objects and spaces can be designed to serve as virtual billboards or interactive ad spaces that are seamlessly integrated into the virtual environment. These ads may be contextually relevant to the user's virtual experience and personalized based on their preferences and behavior.

Moreover, with the rise of Web3, users are likely to have more control over their data and privacy. This may lead to a shift towards permission-based advertising, where users explicitly grant permission for advertisers to access their data and serve them personalized ads. However, in these cases, advertisers may also need to provide greater transparency and value to users to earn their permission to advertise to them.

Looking Back At The Gaming Industry To Define The Rules Of Web3

Therefore, starting from the belief that the metaverse has a lot in common with gaming platforms and a level of intersection with them, going back to these references and looking at the ways gaming has solved a lot of the early concerns and challenges, seems the best way to navigate the innovation that the Web3 will inevitably bring. 

An easy example would be the very concept of digital ownership, which is something that went through proponents very big on gaming platforms because players had to define ownership of digital items within various environments. Also the idea of value presented itself within game interaction when players completed transactions, stemming the use of some form of digital money. 

“I think what we found is that there continues to be a lot of back and forth between Web3 and gaming communities,” Jonathan says. 

And when it comes to trust and safety, the measures adopted in the gaming space can be translated and freely adopted for pretty much any kind of immersive environment, including the metaverse. 

This is critical for any business looking to integrate advertising and marketing as part of a sustainable digital business because brands looking to invest in reaching their customers have expectations about the content that appears around or next to their campaigns.  

In 2020, the Global Alliance for Responsible Media released the Brand Safety Floor and Brand Suitability Framework, and continues to update these guidelines as the industry evolves. This effort “set out an agreed set of sensitive content categories with different risk levels, each with monetization guidelines that range from content that is not suitable for advertising (The Brand Safety Floor) to content that is suitable to be eligible for monetization but may present varying degrees of sensitivity to the advertiser (The Suitability Framework).”

The two main bars to hit here, in Jonathan’s opinion, are brand suitability (fitting in the right environments) and safety (keeping bad content out). The more the media ecosystem in general can work through these frameworks, the more brands will be able to find and have meaningful interaction with consumers.

However, the part that the industry is going to be challenged with is that “change doesn't always happen really quickly,” says Johnathan.  But, whether it's through the metaverse or it's just through increased adoption of gaming, the key point for him, marketers have to be clear on the opportunity, and the fact that more of our media consumption patterns are going towards immersive media is going to be one of the bigger shifts, that's definitely  going to happen the next 10 to 20 years. And for this to start now, the way we interact with consumers and forge our messaging, has to change. 

Key Trust & Safety Lessons

  • Adopt a test-and-learn approach to new and evolving immersive media marketing strategies with partners who can demonstrate the prioritisation of trust and safety for their communities 
  • Prioritise brand safety and suitability when developing your immersive marketing experience and ask your partners for their approach to content moderation and community guidelines enforcement
  • Look to the gaming industry and how it solved some of its key trust and safety issues as an example of how we might approach challenges with Web3 technology and metaverse-like environments

Watch the full interview here or listen and subscribe to the Brand Safety Exchange podcast on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.