January 24, 2017

Virtual Reality and What It Means For Digital Marketing

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Published: 24 January 2017 

Recent years have seen great strides being made in the field of Virtual Reality (VR). It’s gone from being something just talked about to being a product consumers can purchase. However, VR has yet to grow to its full potential, and businesses have yet to fully capitalise on it. So what exactly is VR, and how can it be useful for marketers?

What is VR?

The Virtual Reality Society defines VR as: “a three-dimensional, computer generated environment which can be explored and interacted with by a person. That person becomes part of this virtual world or is immersed within this environment and whilst there, is able to manipulate objects or perform a series of actions.”

In other words, VR allows our senses to explore a computer generated virtual environment. It differentiates itself from 3D technology as users are completely immersed, while in 3D you can still see your surroundings. By blocking out everything completely, your senses are tricked and you are able to experience a whole new environment.

Challenges

Because of the total immersion that can be experienced, VR has become more appealing to consumers, and as the appeal expands, the technology has become more readily available and slowly becoming cheaper. Nevertheless, there is still some way to go before VR will have a broad appeal to a larger consumer audience. A survey completed by Iros MORI found that just under half of those surveyed are interested in experiencing VR. However, they also found 6 out of 10 respondents believe VR is just for gamers, and most believe the technology is too expensive. Some of the high end options prove this viewpoint correct - the Samsung Gear VR costs $100, while the HTC Vive costs $800.

While VR headsets are still associated with a high cost, companies are already producing cheap VR headsets. Google Cardboard costs just $15. Google also claims global search interest in VR has grown by 4 times in the last year. Companies go where there is consumer demand - so it is clear VR will continue to grow, and as the range expands prices are sure to drop.

Wired were also able to point out a factor that could potentially make or break the success of VR. Simply put, VR has a ‘dork factor’, that being no one looks cool wearing a VR headset. This was one of the factors that caused the failure of Google Glass. In order to ensure success, companies producing VR headsets will need to ensure that they are not only affordable, but that they either look better, or they can get consumers past the point of caring about how it looks.    

So what does virtual reality mean for companies and digital marketers?

While the technology is still growing, it presents and opportunity for brands and marketers to capitalise on it and introduce VR to their digital marketing strategy.

There are many benefits for businesses to use VR, including:

- Immersive: VR offers an environment where customers are completely immersed in their surroundings. Unlike shopping online or in a store, there are no distractions. Customers will be completely focused, meaning they are more likely to focus on the message a brand is trying to communicate. No other platform offers advertisers the chance to reach a completely immersed audience.

- Memorable: at the moment VR is still a new technology. Customers who undertake VR will therefore find the experience memorable, far more than simply shopping online. It is easy to see this will have huge potential for e-commerce. In the UK, retail brand Marks & Spencer trialled pop-up virtual reality showrooms, which allowed users to drag products from the homeware range to furnish a virtual room. Back in 2014, Topshop partnered with Inition to offer the lucky winners of a competition a virtual reality experience during London Fashion Week.  

- Experience: thanks to VR, users are able to undertake a whole new experience they otherwise would not be able to have. Businesses are already using this to their advantage. Marriott, in partnership with Framestore VR Studio and Relevant, created The Teleporter - a booth fitted with VR headsets - which gives customers a virtual tour of destinations including Hawaii and London.

- Tell a story: VR allows for customers to not just see a video or a still video. So if you’re going to use immersive technology such as VR, ensure you are telling a story. The New York Times is considered a pioneer in storytelling within VR. In November 2015, the publication distributed over 1 million Google Cardboard glasses to allow viewers to watch the film “The Displaced”, about the 60 million people currently displaced from their homes by war and persecution. In May 2016, the New York Times distributed 300,000 of the glasses with the film “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart.” While newspapers and magazines are considered and old and dying form of media, VR is allowing for a new way to tell a story.     

The challenge for brands and marketers will be to ensure the content they produce within VR is interesting. VR is new and cool, but if what you’re watching is boring you’re not going to end up with customers who will make a purchase. Companies will need to focus on effectively communicating their brand message and creating a whole world, rather than just advertising a still image. While there are no ways to block ads within VR at present time, companies and advertisers don’t want to risk damaging their brand by ruining a customer's VR experience with a bad ad. Advertising done correctly will allow for consumers to engage and interact with the content.    

VR is sure to increase in popularity throughout 2017. However, we are yet to see whether VR will be a success, whether it will simply be a novelty or if it will go the way of Google Glass and 3D televisions.  

Ben Maden

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