It’s spring and romance is blooming in the metaverse, according to new user data from Reddit. And there are major opportunities for brands of all kinds — from interior design labels to food subscription services — to get in on the action.
Lovers are eager to engage in the metaverse in order to meet new people, per exclusive data from Reddit. And after two-plus years of the pandemic, they’re more ready than ever to get their flirt on — in these burgeoning virtual spaces. In fact, in the last six months, Reddit has seen a 249% increase in mentions of “dating” within VR interest groups.
So, what are the reasons behind this trend? And what does it say about the future of relationships — and the shape of the metaverse moving forward?
1. Cosplay the easy way (passion, Star Wars-style)
With IRL socialization and travel subject to evolving Covid-related restrictions, consumers began turning to virtual reality (VR) and emerging virtual ecosystems to immerse themselves in new experiences. In fact, there’s been a 92% year-over-year lift in sales of VR headsets.
On Reddit, this trend has been especially pronounced — Redditors are 125% more likely than the general public to want to engage in the metaverse and meet new people and are 42% more likely to prefer spending time online rather than in-person. Redditors are twice as likely as the general population to be interested in “joining the metaverse” — and this is reflected in their activity on the social site: screenviews of the subreddit r/VRchat grow 193% between March 2020 and March 2022.
And more than ever, they’re interested in meeting potential romantic partners in virtual spaces. Not only can users meet people who live across the globe, but with new virtual spaces and VR capabilities, users can engage in novel activities and invest more deeply in their interests and passions.
“It's not just that you and I [might be] Star Wars fans; we can literally throw ourselves into a Star Wars universe and… play out that passion in real time in a way that doesn't require me to travel across the world and doesn't require me to buy a bunch of stuff, dress up or cosplay like you might otherwise do,” says Rob Gaige, Reddit’s director of partner insights. “We can do it in a much more casual way. You generate a more honest connection at the level of a passion — versus where in the [face-to-face] dating world, where it's a little bit more superficial.”
2. Reality can’t be kept at bay forever (let's meet at the diner on the corner)
Long-distance, primarily virtual relationships are rarely set up for success — in fact, the average long-distance relationship lasts less than five months. It’s clear that while internet users may be finding love in new spaces, they can’t escape the real world forever. Couples need to experience shared physical intimacy, quality time and real-life communication to ensure they’ll have a healthy, successful partnership.
But what Gaige and the Reddit team have discovered is that for couples who found love in the metaverse, these virtual spaces and experiences will continue to play a role in their real-life relationships. “We're already seeing indications of this sort of hybrid relationship, where just because you met in the metaverse and now you're in real life doesn't mean that you leave the metaverse behind,” says Gaige. “This isn't like having the Tinder app where you delete the app after [you’ve found a relationship].”
Instead, he predicts, the metaverse will remain an integral part to these IRL romantic relationships. “We might physically be together, but we'll go back into that world and have date night now on [Star Wars’] Tatooine.” He sees this hybrid relationship as the next phase of what’s only just begun.
And it might just help these couples remain happy in the long-term. Almost two-thirds (64%) of married couples with shared interests cite this as a reason for the success of their marriage.
3. Different kinds of relationships ('anything goes' is the new norm)
The metaverse is also ripe for forming different kinds of relationships. Gaige suggests that double-dating will become more seamless, as couples don’t need to live in proximity to meet up. At the same time, in a lower-stakes virtual environment, he predicts that it will allow users “a safe environment to unlock less traditional relationship structures — things like the advancement of roleplay and the advancement of non-monogamous relationships.” For this reason, he estimates that gen Z — a broadly more sexually and gender-fluid generation — will be particularly interested in metaverse dating.
And while romance is taking off in the metaverse, so too are other kinds of interactions. Increasingly, users are turning to VR and the possibilities of emergent tech to not only connect with long-distance friends and romantic partners, but even to immortalize loved ones who have passed. An interest in harnessing new technologies to spend time with the deceased may be on the rise as Reddit user behavior reflects a spike in support group activity — from March 2020 to March 2022, the platform saw a 201% jump in screenviews of r/griefsupport.
The idea is nascent but Gaige and his team are keeping a close eye on how it might develop. “Could we create non-playable characters that exist as prior imprints of people you knew?” he says. “It's something that we've seen play out time and time again in culture — from the hologram concerts from deceased [artists] to pretty much every bit of science fiction. But this is now a true possibility, where people are considering encoding those personalities and interacting with them.”
He says he’s been surprised that there is less demand to interact with celebrities and more demand to immortalize lost loved ones. “I thought maybe this would be more about famous people — like, here’s my chance to hang out with Beyoncé. It's not that. It’s like, ‘I really want my grandma — and it'd be great if I could encode my grandma so that my son or daughter could meet their great-grandma.”
Implications for marketers (hey, there’s money to made here)
The explosion of interest in metaverse relationships presents a whole gamut of valuable opportunities for brands.
Brands can also dig more deeply into the cash cow that is fandom to drive new kinds of engagement. They might host virtual activities or events to help users meet other fans who share their passions. Nintendo fanatics might wander Peach’s castle together, while Potterheads play a game of virtual quidditch.
Another key way in which brands might find value in the space is by tapping into the new commercial economy of crypto. As the world is already seeing reflected in the high fashion industry’s foray into NFTs, there are countless opportunities for brands to help outfit avatars and enable users to show up to metaverse mixers or dates feeling like the most authentic version of themselves. Brands might offer a range of clothing options, props, accessories, makeup, body modifications or even cars, bikes or scooters.
But the commercial implications of token-based interactions go much further. “[On a date in the metaverse] I'm not bound by what restaurants are within my budget, or even nearby, or the type of food [we] might like, because I'm creating an immersive experience,” says Gaige. As a result, he says, NFTs and tokens will serve as vehicles for creating unique dating experiences. “We're going to see more of, like, ‘Hey, I've created a special experience [for you]... I'm going tobuy a special song to play for you to show you how much I care about you.’ It's a great opportunity for brands.”
The Reddit team believes that certain industries might be better poised for success early on. Luxury goods and fashion are obvious early adopters and Gaige draws attention to the burgeoning metaverse real estate market (sales of real estate in the metaverse surpassed $500m in 2021 and, per a recent report by CNBC, may double this year). “[Companies are] reconstructing famous buildings, famous plots of land [in the metaverse]. In some ways, your dream home should be in the virtual space, and then you don't necessarily need as much of it in real space,” says Gaige.
In the same vein, he predicts that design brands will see new opportunities abound. “I see the Herman Millers of the world and they should be jumping into this right away and developing a mid-century modern ethos in that space. Any designer — Kelly Wearstler — if I was in charge of brand for those guys, that's what I'd be doing for them.”
Will Cady, who serves as director of Reddit’s creative strategy arm KarmaLab, anticipates that food subscription services like Blue Apron could see new opportunities as long-distance couples try to connect in new ways.
Ultimately, the space is so nascent that the possibilities are almost endless, says Cady. “These are open fields to a degree — there are new habits and new rituals that can be formed that haven't been formed yet. As an example, I officiated a wedding in the metaverse, and it was entirely this new moment. There were about 200 people online and about 10 people in person IRL. That is something that didn't exist before. What are the commercial opportunities to make a wedding in the metaverse something that [offers a] good experience for all of the guests?”