ITV Studios and development partner Virtual Brand Group details an experiment in translating programme brands and engaging audiences in the metaverse, writes Adrian Pennington.
A virtual version of ITV Studios’ reality format The Voice is “redefining how entertainment can be consumed 365-days a year,” according to Justin Hochberg, CEO of metaverse developer Virtual Brand Group (VBG).
The Voice Studios, built by VBG for ITV Studios on metaverse platform Decentraland, launched last month during the final weeks of Season 23 of the show on US network NBC.
It is free for anyone to access and intended to be a permanent year-round destination where, among other things, fans have a chance to audition for a potential slot on a future season of the series.
It is designed as a global hub into which planned activations for key territories, such as the UK, will be connected. The Voice currently airs in 148 versions around the world.
“We are hoping to build this global hub for The Voice to give local fans places to see their local coaches,” explained Lucie Stoffers, ITV Studios’ head of brand licensing, global partnerships. “Australia might be next where we can tie in the Australian audience to the same experiences and create a global hub with a local relevance to local friends.”
The Voice Steps into the Metaverse: Decentraland and Engagement
The launch follows a four-day virtual pop-up event for The Voice last November at the Decentraland Metaverse Music Festival. The music festival featured acts by dozens of bands – virtually – including Bjork, Ozzy Osborne and Deadmau5. In the adjacent The Voice experience, fans spent an average of 49 minutes per session — generating 13 times more engagement than typical social media platforms. By contrast, said Hochberg, the average click-through rate for an ad on social media is less than one per cent.
“Over the last decade the idea that [banner ads] was going to be an amazing way to connect brands with people has not proven all its value. In our world, 13 per cent of those who came to play clicked through, even when there was nothing free being giving away [as an incentive]. That math on its own tells me that the world of deep immersive engagement is so much more powerful than what I call pancake media (two-dimensional, flat screen). It’s phenomenal to see those type of results.”
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It’s clear that the VBG see the metaverse as a tremendous untapped business opportunity. Hochberg – a former producer of the American version of The Apprentice - said his company’s job is to work with brands “to help them connect with youth culture and find ways that are not being serviced by existing media – TV, print or social media.”
“It’s less about the technology and more about how you best connect with your consumers.”
That’s why ITV are playing in this space too. It’s not the first time it has dipped into the metaverse and Web3. A set of ‘collectable’ NFTs for Thunderbirds dropped last year and ITV-owned agency Metavision created a version of I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out Of Here! in Fortnite to mark the launch of ITVX.
“With VBG we have a whole line up of activations with The Voice to come including on Roblox and Sandbox,” said Stoffers.
The Voice Steps into the Metaverse: Ramsay Opens his Doors
Coming soon to Sandbox is Gordon Ramsay’s Hell’s Kitchen described as “a multi-dimensional, participatory adventure for our community to take part in challenges, win prizes, and even be reviewed by the 3 Michelin starred Chef.”
As ITV said in its promotion for the virtual Hell’s Kitchen “no activation is complete without the opportunity to buy a ‘digital representation in sync with the theme” - 2333 unique avatars will be available for purchase.
“Broadcasters have historically found it hard to meet their audience but this is where the metaverse opportunity lies,” said Hochberg. “Broadcasters and programme brands can now meet their consumers from different countries. They can meet even when the show isn’t on TV through a global hub that gives you ways to interact and build things.”
Regardless of the platform – Decentraland, Sandbox, Roblox – Hochberg said developing a successful activation is all about iteration.
“You try something, you adjust it, you look at the data - unlike a TV show, where once the programme airs you can do very little about it until maybe the next series.”
It’s one reason, Hochberg claimed, why “the metaverse is redefining how entertainment can be consumed on a 365-day a year basis.”
The short-term goals for ITV are to find out what fans like, what success looks like in terms of time spent on the platform and what does the audience engage with the most.
“The main challenge has been working out to adapt The Voice brand to the metaverse,” said Stoffers. “We learned we shouldn’t just copy & paste what we’re doing IRL into the metaverse. It was helpful to work with VBG to create something new.”
The Voice Steps into the Metaverse: An Ongoing Experience
Whereas the pop-up was temporary The Voice Studios is intended to exist indefinitely. Hochberg said, “Like Disneyworld, it is a persistent experience. It is also bigger. Where we had 2-3 things to do in the pop-up, we now have five different games. Instead of a small quarter, NBC has an entire building.”
The selection of virtual clothing (wearables) has been expanded. This merch can be paid for using conventional mechanisms like PayPal or Visa and Decentraland’s own currency Mana. Merch can also be won.
“Wearables are virtual clothing that participants can wear just to look fashionable,” said Hochberg said. “For first time in the history of any TV show we have merchandise that mirrors what the coaches give out on the TV show.”
On NBC’s The Voice, coaches including Kelly Clarkson and Niall Horan, will gift a collectable hoodie or sweatshirt to contestants every season.
“We recreated that limited edition merchandise so anyone can collect it. You can’t get that anywhere else but you can earn it by playing on Kelly’s team in the metaverse. In short, [the new activation] is bigger, better and more connected.”
VBG also works with fashion brands and said are it is at the forefront of creating the physical + virtual (aka “phygital”) retail environment that delivers new products and more revenue faster than ever. The first NFT merchandise drop on the pop-up The Voice event sold out in three hours.
The Voice Steps into the Metaverse: Real Life Engagement
Hochberg argues that fans will flock to metaverse experiences like this because the experience is more like real life. Interactions between celebrities and fans and among communities are the biggest difference between metaverse platforms and traditional social media like TikTok or Facebook.
“Social media is not very social,” he insisted. “For example, if a celebrity posts something you might write back a comment and or you might post a picture or a hashtag but your comments will get lost in the noise of thousands of people doing the same thing. There is very little way for me to connect with you. It’s a limited experience.
“What makes virtual worlds so sticky by contrast is that they are social experiences.”
He likens virtual worlds to going to a party, a festival or to the park, “places where we are around people, we can talk and have a more personal conversation.” Hochberg claims that visitors are likely to spend multiple hours a day playing in virtual worlds as opposed to the 10-minute average visiting a physical retail store.
“These are social gaming platforms,” he added. “If we went to the park with a frisbee and our dog we’d probably have a great time and we could do an unlimited number of things. That is what makes social gaming platforms sticky.”
One of the ways that the physical world of televised and at-arena events may merge with their virtual counterparts is via technology like holograms and augmented reality. You could imagine a fan in the guise of their avatar in The Voice Studios winning an audition and then being invited to translate that experience back to the live TV show, still as an avatar.
One example: AI-based technology including synthetic voice creator Respeecher and deepfake video specialist Metaphysic ‘resurrected’ Elvis Presley live during the final of America’s Got Talent last autumn.
“It’s early days but when the metaverse is in a more persistent form we hope to connect to physical concept and spaces,” said Stoffers.
“Avatars and holograms are technically possible now,” added Hochberg. “The thing to keep in mind with Gen Z and Alpha is that they live their life in multiple places at the same time. They might be watching The Voice and maybe dressing up and performing with the virtual Voice.
“So yes, The Voice Studios is experimental but virtual worlds are not speculative. There are already 600 million people in the world using virtual worlds.”
Three decades ago Mosaic became the first widely available web browser was first released. At that time there were a mere 10,000 academics exchanging papers about it.
“With the metaverse we have 600 million people as the starting point. We all have a smartphone to access the metaverse. It doesn’t require another piece of hardware or special technical knowledge so the adoption rate will go much, much faster.”
He said it took people a while to realise that the Internet was more than just a visual brochure but a way to conduct e-commerce. Virtual Brand Group’s perspective is why wait five years to figure this out.
“Why not start from the onset with that perspective? Every partner that we onboard or consult with is all about how quickly we can convert your metaverse business to be $20-$50 million,” he concluded.
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