What Virtual Reality Really Means for Marketers

“No one denies that virtual reality is cool,” Sahil Patel starts off by saying in a recent article in Digiday. He continues to explain the opportunity presented by virtual reality (VR) and the crushing actuality it’s operating within, “trying on a VR headset and being taken to a time and place that you couldn’t possibly go to in real life is a pretty compelling proposition. But just because something is cool doesn’t mean it will be popular.”

Few trends have caught the attention and imagination of marketers like VR has over the past six months. And like most, ever since VR began dominating experts’ “2016 Trends” lists, I’ve been both completely enamored and acutely skeptical of its applicability for marketing — and its capability for widespread adoption.

It’s easy to envision VR becoming the next iteration in transformative and disruptive technology. We’re potentially at the precipice of a world where audiences won’t just be told a story or watch one, but where they can actually live it and interact with it. As such, the promise of VR isn’t about escaping reality, but instead creating richer way to experience it.

Where we’re at though is just that: promise and potential. Additionally, whether or not VR actually takes off isn’t as important as the shift in marketing it represents.

The new paradigm

VR isn’t launching in a vacuum and is actually part of a larger paradigm shift developing in marketing and communications. TV, the Internet, and smartphones started the process by breaking down barriers, democratizing information, and opening communication channels. Yet, by and large, communication through these channels remains a passive experience where people read articles or watch shows.

Now with the introduction of technologies like VR, this shift is continuing from passive content experiences to active ones. As a result, a true evolution in how we experience life and share experiences is developing.

We can even take a step back from VR for a moment and see how this trend is playing out over current social media offerings.

Channels like Snapchat and Instagram have opened the doors to greater shared experiences and their their rapid growth in popularity shows a desire for these experiences, both by the receiver and the creator. By sharing snaps, videos, and photos, people and brands can grant audiences greater access into places they never would’ve previously been able to see and experience.

The next iteration on this trend has come in the form of live video on social channels where audiences can see, hear, interact, and engage with people and brands, genuinely, in real-time.

All of these signal the growing importance of and enthusiasm for active and shared content experiences, which VR will continue to advance. Current VR worlds are enclosed and singular, but that won’t last for long. Companies are looking to take the technology further by creating networks and connected communities that will allow users to not only enjoy immersive experiences, but also make them shared ones.

What does this mean for brands?

In the current offerings a final barrier still exists, a kind of technology 4th wall. What if that could be removed?

Audiences could potentially walk the halls of a favorite school, take part in hands-on tutorials from experts, conduct in-person discussions with thought leaders, experience live events from afar, and take in hard to reach destinations.

Such possibilities make the current offerings look antiquated and are what make VR so intoxicating.

In this age, brands could complement other platforms with VR stories to deliver rich, immersive experiences that engage audiences.

Brands are already using variations of VR, augmented reality (AR), and 360 video to create these experiences, as is highlighted throughout this article.

There are also plenty more examples beyond the embedded videos like Marriott’s, “The Teleporter,” which allows audiences to visit various destinations without having to pack a suitcase. Other examples include IKEA’s use of AR that gives people the ability to place its furniture in their homes and Volvo’s VR that allows people to test drive a XC90 right from their couch.

Even movie studios like Legendary are using VR to develop experiences around their films and the worlds crafted for them — deepening the consumer connection with these brands and franchises.

In all of these applications, VR, AR, and 360 are giving brands opportunities to create remarkable experiences that are pushing the boundaries of content as we know it. But it’s important to remember that novel tricks will not build and nurture audiences. Instead it’s the enhancement of stories and value these technologies enable that is so powerful.

Ultimately, good content and experiences will rise to the top, separate brands, and build audience loyalty regardless of the medium — and brands must be judicious enough to understand when these new technologies can add something for their audiences.

Consequently, it is imperative brands take an audience-first approach to make sure they’re using these mediums to add value for consumers, enhance stories, and create truly unique experiences. Some brands are taking notice of the need for quality, such as the New York Times, which has hired a VR editor and is making incredible VR stories.

How will it all play out?

It’s easy to get caught up in the hype with VR — especially with the likes of Facebook seemingly going all-in on it. However, it still stands to reason that any widespread use or adoption of VR is at least a couple of years away with a lot of barriers that stand in the way.

A recent (and fascinating) WIRED cover story does a great job pointing out these challenges which include ‘the dork factor,’ safety, and a poor interface.

VR headsets are quite ridiculous looking.

VR headsets are quite ridiculous looking.

Some further prohibitive elements are the price (cost is to produce VR experiences is restrictive for producers as well), the physical obstacle created by restrictive headsets, and that VR is currently just a blip on the radar of the public consciousness.

Other articles have also pointed to the potential that its mass-market appeal due to these elements carries the risk of going the way of Google Glass, 3D printing and 3D TVs.

So, again, will VR actually be successful and move out of being a novelty? I’m not so sold on it from where things stand currently and the brandishing of it as a trend for 2016 seems premature. My guess is that VR will have to adapt to technology that currently exists to really take off and 360 video will be the closest thing we have for a while due to the low barrier of entry for brands and consumers alike.

Adoption or not though, VR represents something much larger. New tools and new channels will arise, along with the adaptation of current channels to meet the desire for more immersive and experience based content. Marketers will need to become even more dedicated to creating truly great experiences and putting audiences first to remain relevant. This will result in the brands that are agile enough to begin experimenting now and grow with the technologies as the brands that will ensure success for the next evolution of marketing and cut through the clutter of the modern — and future — marketing landscape.

Thank You

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