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Healthcare marketers won’t be left behind in the metaverse

It’s easy to dismiss the metaverse as the media world’s latest shiny object. After all, a functional metaverse as currently envisioned is likely years in the distance, and most companies still can’t define exactly what it is, or what it might eventually be.

But in an unexpected break from the industry’s usual cautious approach to adopting new technologies, leading life sciences organizations — everyone from CVS to Pfizer to Cedars-Sinai — are galloping forward, trying on digital opportunities that range from simple to scientific. As varied as the early experiments are, there is an exciting common denominator: They’re all based on the belief that the industry can create new ways to blend physical and virtual worlds — and in the process, make people healthier.

Definitions of the metaverse are likely to be revised as often as the average 10-year-old evolves her or his Roblox presence. Yet most experts believe it’s essential to start with some common understanding of what this new world might mean and entail.

They agree that the metaverse represents the next iteration of the internet, dubbing it Web 3.0. They’re also united in the belief that it will make much of what we use today look as antiquated as a Clinton-era desktop.

Many technologies that make the metaverse magical are already familiar to most users, including artificial intelligence, augmented and virtual reality, and 3-D computing. It also relies on faster connectivity, such as 5G. It goes without saying that one of the overarching goals — a greatly enhanced ability to participate in online communities — will make sense to users everywhere.

But in the metaverse, it will all be done differently, in ways that are more experiential and immersive than most people can currently imagine. And it will offer a kind of portability that’s hard to grasp.

“Your identity will go with you wherever you go,” says Peter Shankman, a social media expert and entrepreneur. “Right now, when I leave Facebook, all my friends, posts and everything else stay there. In the metaverse, that will all leave Facebook and follow me.”

While the privacy safeguards required to make that possible are very much a work in progress (and will be enabled by blockchain, another technology new to many healthcare-adjacent professionals), they will be a critical component in this new frontier. Many individuals and organizations are tired of Big Tech calling all the shots about data exchange; they believe Web 3.0 will offer an unprecedented degree of freedom.

It isn’t as if no one knows how it will look. Glimpses are evident in the 2-D worlds of gaming platforms such as Roblox, Minecraft and Fortnite. While no one was surprised when consumer brands such as Nike, Disney, Gucci and Coca-Cola stampeded into early iterations of the metaverse, technologists in and around healthcare are delighted that the Mayo Clinic and Johns Hopkins, among others, are clearly staking a claim to metaverse turf.

Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx is an FDA-approved video game designed to treat ADHD, and it’s being evaluated as a treatment for COVID-19 patients with brain fog.

Despite the still-squishy definitions, healthcare brands are clamoring to learn more about the possibilities. Area 23 recently presented a metaverse primer for internal and external audiences that drew a record number of participants, says Alec Pollak, SVP of group omnichannel strategy for the FCB-owned agency. “The metaverse is testing people’s imagination, which is great.”

Those people aren’t just looky-loos, either. While pharma has a well-earned reputation for digital timidity, GCI Health EVP and U.S. head of digital and innovation Kristin Ryan notes that “clients are more prepared for learning. They want to be ahead. They’re saying, ‘Tell us what’s next and where we should be a year from now.’”

Ryan believes healthcare organizations are ready to pony up and commit, even if they lack clarity around budgeting for metaverse initiatives. “Pharma has done a good job recruiting digital talent, and in the last two years they’ve radically accelerated adoption of digital,” she adds.

Some A-list companies are already there. Last year, Pfizer offered a COVID-19 vaccination event in Brazil inside Grand Theft Auto (yes, we realize those words strung together read slightly like MM+M Mad Libs, but the execution was flawless). CVS, for its part, is trying to trademark pharmacy, health clinics and retail goods in the metaverse, and is offering virtual wellness and nutrition coaching.

Given that the metaverse isn’t likely to arrive as a fully formed entity for another few years, Pollak suggests to healthcare clients that a good first step is to “dip their toes in the water by buying media in an existing property.” The opportunity to advertise in a game, she adds, represents “a nice first step and one that doesn’t require a big commitment.”

More ambitious organizations, on the other hand, might want to “visit a friend’s pool,” as Pollak puts it. That could mean sponsoring a concert or other event “where there is already an existing community.”

As for the brands that want to, in effect, “build their own pool,” Pollak says true commitment is needed. “That way, they can control the full experience. They’ll have control and regulatory oversight of what’s going on,” she adds.

According to Emma Chiu, global director, Wunderman Thompson Intelligence and author of the company’s recent “Into the Metaverse” report, metaverse-curious companies must be mindful of just how important technology really is to most people.

The report revealed that 93% of respondents believe technology is our future, while 81% said a brand’s digital presence means as much as its physical one. Some 76% noted that their everyday lives depend on technology.

Technology also makes them feel better, with 88% of Gen-Z respondents and 85% of millennials saying they use digital tech to unwind. Even the majority of baby boomers, 66%, find it relaxing.

Chiu says the research, which tapped more than 3,000 respondents in the U.S., U.K. and China, uncovers a clear link between tech and wellness. More than half (55%) believe that technology makes them physically healthier; a similar percentage (56%) believes that it improves their mental health.

Thus gamification and gamevertising — that’s cool-kid shorthand for in-game branding and experiences — are likely a good starting point for many healthcare companies. “Every child born today is likely going to be a gamer,” Chiu stresses. “And because of that, it’s possible they are going to be the healthiest generation ever.”

There are plenty of examples of what are now known as “tech-ceuticals.” Akili Interactive’s EndeavorRx is an FDA-approved, prescription-strength video game designed to treat ADHD. Weill Cornell Medicine, New York-Presbyterian Hospital and Vanderbilt University Medical Center are among the medical systems working with Akili to evaluate the game as a treatment for COVID-19 patients who experience brain fog.

Revery, a startup, has raised $2 million in funding to explore mobile games that can treat insomnia. At UC-San Francisco’s Neuroscape brain research center, experts are working on VR games that may improve memory in older adults.

And at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, doctors are mulling the idea of “VR pharmacies” staffed with “virtualists” who can help patients find targeted doses of VR-based experiences, according to the Wunderman Thompson report. The center has already published research showing such efforts are effective in pain management.

Pollak points out that, shockingly, many pharma brands are way ahead of consumer brands in the metaverse, as those brands have been using AR and VR tools for years to interact with HCPs. Med-school students and highly trained surgeons alike are already accustomed to strapping on headsets to learn new and better skills.

Pollak believes the metaverse offers rich possibilities for brands to train sales reps as well. While the pandemic saw any number of organizations pivot to virtual training programs, these programs can only benefit from stronger community integration.

“The peer-to-peer aspect is going to unlock better ways for training and education,” he says. “This industry has been building immersive worlds, using AR and VR and many other kinds of tech, for congress booths for some time. Those things themselves aren’t the metaverse, but they are the building blocks it will be made of.”

Peter Shankman, social media expert and entrepreneur, works out using Creed: Rise to Glory, a VR workout/game that works as both a game and a calorie burner.

What will take these tech innovations to that next level is the community layer, Pollak adds. “It’s the difference between taking a correspondence course and attending an in-person university class. The possibilities for collaboration and social interaction are what set it apart.”

Gamers have been living in these virtual communities for decades, of course, so what will render the metaverse versions of them so different? “The interconnectivity of multiple virtual worlds,” Pollak responds. “Maybe it will be desktop or mobile, or through headsets that look less like these enormous VR goggles we use now and more like regular eyeglasses.”

Ryan agrees with his bullishness, especially for healthcare organizations. “Content is where we see the most opportunity,” she says, with the caveat that “finding meaningful touchpoints there will require bringing useful information and marrying it to the right audience, platform and opportunity.”

To that end, Ryan is most excited about the possibilities for unbranded and disease awareness work. “In some of these existing communities, patients are already interacting with each other and sharing useful information and experiences,” she notes. Not surprisingly, her clients are eager to expand the reach of their unbranded patient communities — hello, metaverse.

Here’s where pharma’s reputation for moving slow in and around the digital realm comes into play. Ironically, the years wasted dithering over the “right” way to use social media has prompted healthcare companies to accept what their peers in pretty much every other vertical have long since acknowledged: That either they move fast or risk losing opportunities to affirm their relevance with key audiences.

Yes, Ryan acknowledges, pharma clients still ask conservative questions. (“Is this the right place for me to jump in?”) And yes, they worry that the metaverse will primarily appeal to younger (read: healthier) people.

That’s all part of a healthy conversation, though. The more important takeaway: That clients are pumped aboutthe metaverse.

Will that energy translate into meta-tastic launches? Maybe, but reasons for skepticism exist. Privacy and liability concerns can never be dismissed. Also, as Shankman notes, “Brands being genuinely excited doesn’t necessarily equate with brands doing anything.”

Ultimately, most experts believe the metaverse’s social connection- and community-building possibilities will be impossible for life sciences marketers to resist. Chiu notes that, in many ways, virtual communities can feel safer than real ones.

“People are sometimes more open about their tough issues, like mental or sexual health, in the digital world than in person,” she explains.

Wellness and fitness concepts should also thrive. Shankman says his favorite workout these days is Creed: Rise to Glory, a VR workout/game on Oculus that works as both a game and a calorie burner.

“I’m just punching the air,” he reports. “But I’m doing it against competitors and live people and busting my butt.”

The popularity of the Mirror connected fitness device, now owned by Lululemon, represents another example of consumer enthusiasm for all things health-tech-related. It doesn’t seem too much of a leap to suggest that these consumers will become more and more comfortable with information from other devices — steps measured by a wearable, sleep data from an app, the latest reading from a connected bathroom scale — integrating with their metaverse profile. And that comfort will likely extend to information gathered by pacemakers and blood glucose monitors as well.

The innovations that stick will be the ones that deliver on convenience, Ryan believes. “People are hungry for any solution that makes life easier and alleviates the burden of having to get in a car and drive somewhere,” she explains. “That can be as simple as texting a provider a photo of a rash or using systems that shorten wait times.”

Chiu is similarly enthusiastic about the potential impact of better telepresence: “Imagine how much better a virtual visit could be if you felt you were in the same room with the provider, sitting side by side.” While the information-exchange component of such interactions won’t suddenly become a thrill ride, Chiu thinks that it “will feel so much more accessible. This can be the thing that humanizes healthcare.”

That warmth could well prove the metaverse’s strongest offering. It may amp up our sense of empathy and, in turn, drive stronger connection, engagement and relevance.

“Empathy comes from being able to walk in someone else’s shoes and, with these immersive experiences, that will be possible as never before,” Pollak says. “Patients will be able to tell their stories in entirely new ways.”

Which isn’t to say that it’ll be easy for healthcare marketers to adapt to life in the metaverse. That’s why Pollak believes the smartest organizations will invest early and often.

“The more that our clients and our internal teams learn today, the more they’ll be able to do as these worlds start to get more interconnected,” he adds. “The metaverse is going to be very, very good for the healthcare business.”