Promoting Early-Stage Tech Without Getting Burned
(This article originally appeared in O’Dywer’s PR.)
It has only been a year since Mark Zuckerberg announced Facebook’s rebranding to Meta, and his vision for how the company will lead us into an immersive, virtual world. Yet there have been much excitement and press coverage in this time, for something that research firm Gartner Group claims is 10 years from mainstream adoption.
This article explores the stunning rise of the Metaverse buzz and offers tips to PR professionals working in this area and in other early, frothy markets. How do you promote something so intangible, so nascent, and avoid getting burnt by backlash?
How Soon is Now?
The Metaverse is not a new concept; it is about 30 years old. The term originated in Neal Stephenson’s 1992 science fiction novel, Snow Crash. But I am not sure how seriously people took the Metaverse before Facebook’s grand pivot, which was announced on October 28, 2021, when Mark Zuckerberg laid out the vision in a keynote at the Oculus Connect show.
Some say the move was about Facebook’s effort to recapture leadership on the heels of lots of bad press, stagnant numbers, and the flocking of a newer generation to other platforms, like TikTok. The more cynical might smell a “wag the dog” motive (the phrase comes from politics and means to distract attention from a scandal, often through military action).
Regardless, it is striking how the words of an aging tech giant can light a fire under a concept that was little-known and seemingly not going anywhere at the time.
You can get an idea of just how important this event was in the rise of the Metaverse by looking at press mentions of the term over the past year compared with the previous year. The solid line below in this chart from Cision shows the number of mentions over the past year; the dotted line reflects the previous year’s numbers.
There’s also been a huge spike in startups entering and growing in the space, as evidenced by VC investment. A post on McKinsey & Co.’s blog reported an aggregate $120B funding for related technology and infrastructure in the first five months of 2022, more than double the $57B invested in all of 2021.
It would be wrong to blame all the hype and the exuberance on the media and VCs. There are many players in the hype-industrial complex. Look in your mirrors, and at your employers and clients. Consider the countless PowerPoints, business plans, companies and new divisions launched in just one year to chase the Metaverse dream, involving all kinds of hardware, software, and use cases (think real estate, avatars, ecommerce, advertising, entertainment – the list is endless).
But you have a job to do. You have been handed an assignment, to go out there and make it rain media for some Metaverse-related offering. Or perhaps you are working in other early-stage areas that hold much promise, like quantum computing, Web3 or the blockchain.
How is PR for such far-off possibilities different?
A Look at Technology Evolution
To better understand this, it can help to consider categories. Each has a narrative, a story arc that starts with invention and ends with obsolescence. It has its innovators, leaders, and followers and is about promise, expectations, triumph and sometimes flameouts.
How long it takes for a category to emerge and go big relates to many factors. Geoffrey Moore wrote about the dynamics of technology adoption in his classic text, Crossing the Chasm (the “chasm” refers to the gap separating innovation and mass adoption).
E.g., consider desktop PCs, big a million years ago; yeah, still important – but does anyone really think about them or care much today? Especially media, they don’t necessarily want to cover legacy tech. On the other hand, most would agree that quantum computing (a segment that Fusion PR works in) is at an early stage, perhaps 5-10 years away from mainstream adoption. There is much reporting and vendor jockeying in this sector, nonetheless.
Research firm Gartner Group handily charts the stages of enterprise tech segments and associated hype in their (you guessed it) Hype Cycle reports. See below for the template, and this link to a post about Gartner’s Hype Cycle for Emerging Tech, 2022.
Media appetite and coverage of vendor news and stories vary significantly depending on the stage of the space. It is great to be on the leading edge of a trend as it is getting some steam (i.e., somewhere between the Technology Trigger and Peak of Inflated Expectations, as I noted in my post: Trend Surfing for Fun and Profit).
But sometimes the hype gets well ahead of marketplace adoption. E.g., I have worked in tech for my entire 35 years. Yet I have never seen the exuberance go from 0-60 mph so quickly as the din around the metaverse (and related areas, like Web3).
The Ghost Howls blog wrote about the Metaverse’s Technology Trigger perch on Gartner Hype Cycle for Emerging Technologies 2022: ‘saying that ‘Metaverse’ is just rising now on the hype sounds a bit weird, considering that… the web has been filled with posts about the metaverse and all the trillions it may give us.”
Tips for Promoting Early-Stage Tech
So, what are the right tech PR and marketing tactics for early-stage tech, when case studies and practical solutions are years away? The specifics will vary, and I could fill another article on this, but here are some quick tips:
- Companies at the top – the inventors or largest proponents (like Meta) – should solidify and retain their position. This means seeking to become synonymous with the category, waving its banner through education, shaping standards, and influencing industry analysts’ reports on the space.
- If you are coming in after, take heart; leadership can change (recall the saying, the pioneers are the one who have arrows in their backs). Follow in the leader’s draft. They are doing the heavy lifting of educating the masses and establishing the space. The jobs of PR and marketing are to emphasize differentiators and explain how your technology advances the space.
- There can be a lot of noise. It is a “hurry up and wait” game, and the press are eager to jump on every advancement. You need to choose your shots wisely and decide whether to play the hype game or be more conservative (but there are no awards for playing it low key).
- There is little in the way of validation, and the kinds of stories the media will cover are different than for later stage tech. In lieu of customers and case studies, news about breakthroughs in the lab, key partnerships, and trials can fly.
- New shows, awards, publications, and influencers emerge – the savvy PR team finds the right opportunities and aligns with the right forums and influencers.
- The press can get skeptical and even negative. If you’re a company that competes in the space, be ready for this. Have answers for the most likely concerns.
It can be exciting, working in PR for early-stage tech. There are also some unique challenges. Meta provides an interesting example of the hype in a space exploding in record time, so it is a bit unusual. I hope these tips are helpful, if you are working in the Metaverse-related areas or other nascent spaces.