History is paved with the stories of should-be technological triumphs that turned out to be mere passing fads—from VR technology to early voice synthesis and even QR codes.
Remember Smell-O-Vision? Though well intentioned, its inventor—Hans Laube—came at the technology a bit too early. The tools to create an immersive sensory experience just didn’t exist. And so, as the Los Angeles Times reported:
Smell-O-Vision didn’t completely work as intended. According to Variety, moviegoers in the balcony complained that the aromas reached them a few seconds after the action on the screen and were accompanied by a distracting hissing sound. New York Times critic Bosley Crowther complained that the aromas were too faint, so that “patrons sit there sniffling and snuffling like a lot of bird dogs, trying hard to catch the scent.”
Or how about the Virtual Boy? To use it, you had to lean over the table and press your face into a red and black mask. The only colors on the screen were red and black (as adding blue and green LEDs would have made the device far more expensive). And you couldn’t turn your head and look around, so it was really more of a 3D experience than a virtual one.
To 13-year-old me, that was amazing—but that was not so in the case of the market at large. You know how this story ends: the Virtual Boy quickly landed among the worst-selling game consoles in history, and Nintendo pulled it off the market in less than a year. For a while after that, VR technology lay dormant.
Given all the “game changing” technologies that have flopped over the years, it’s not hard to understand why many brand marketers are still skeptical about whether VR really is the next big marketing transformation. It makes sense that they want to wait and see how the trend plays out before investing time and money. But, if 2016 was the year to “wait and see,” 2017 may be the year to jump on board. Because the verdict is in: VR technology is here to stay (for real this time).
A small percentage of brands and consumers have been toying with VR tech over the past few years, but adoption rates remained low—until now.
VR will have its first billion dollar year in 2016, according to Deloitte, with about $700 million coming from hardware sales and the rest from content. But the real tipping point has been in just the last eight months. According to The NPD Group, an entertainment research firm, sales of virtual- and augmented-reality devices were up 300 percent between May and October, as compared to the six-month period between November 2015 and April 2016.
And this is only the beginning. IDC projected that total revenue for VR and AR will total more than $162 billion in 2020.
Even consumers who haven’t yet purchased VR headsets are already enjoying immersive 360 content via YouTube 360 and Facebook 360. As of last month, YouTube’s 360 channel had more than 1.3 million subscribers, according to according to Ad Age, and its action thriller “Help” had been viewed 2 million times. And thanks to the super affordable Google Cardboard viewer and app—which has been downloaded more than 10 million times—more and more consumers are now experiencing 360-degree content the way it was intended.
Consumers aren’t the only ones who are excited about VR’s potential. Investors also seem to think this technology has staying power. In the first half of 2016, venture capital firms shelled out $1.3 billion and completed 76 deals with VR/AR companies.
Clearly, VR’s time has come, or at least it’s right around the bend. But is it actually a viable marketing channel yet?
According to a recent study by Greenlight VR and Touchstone Research, the answer is an overwhelming yes. Their data shows that:
The message is clear: if VR marketing isn’t in your budget for 2017, it should certainly be on your radar.
Maybe you’re ready to wade into the virtual world, or maybe you’re still doing your homework and thinking about how VR could eventually fit into your brand marketing efforts. Either way, you can pick up a few tips and tricks from the innovative companies that are already testing the waters.
Here are five strategies from brands at the forefront of VR marketing:
So far, only 11 percent of adult internet users in the US—about 23 million people—have tried a VR headset, according to leading interactive virtual reality technology provider YouVisit. But another 30 percent want to try it. And that’s not even including the tech-craving Gen Z users.
What better way to endear your brand to customers than to be the one who introduces them to VR?
That’s exactly what The New York Times has done. In 2015, the media giant created “Displaced,” an immersive documentary about the 30 million children in war-torn countries who have been displaced from their homes. To ensure readers could fully appreciate this and other immersive stories via The New York Times VR app, the company distributed more than 1 million Google Cardboards to subscribers. Then in May 2016, it sent out another 300,000 devices to loyal digital subscribers, this time to promote “Seeking Pluto’s Frigid Heart”—a visually stunning 360-degree exploration of the solar system.
The New York Times isn’t the only company hoping to win brand loyalty by making VR content more accessible. This February, Coca-Cola published a tutorial on how to turn old Coke boxes into VR viewers. And McDonald’s Sweden launched a trial run of Happy Goggles—Happy Meal boxes that could be transformed into VR headsets.
Great visuals are obviously essential to VR content. But not all brand storytelling lends itself to beautiful cinematography. It makes sense for The New York Times to show footage of space, or for automobile marketers to show off their products against stunning landscapes. But some stories are better told with compelling infographics than with photojournalism.
The Verge has proven this isn’t a problem. Earlier this year, the publication was invited by the White House to tell a story about how Michelle Obama successfully used social media to promote healthy eating and exercise. The resulting 10-minute 360 video is a fantastic example of how to fill VR space without amazing footage. When you scroll around within the story, you find infographics, video within the video, photos, and other interesting visuals.
As you watch, consider how this format could bring your case studies and thought leadership content to life:
What happens when you combine VR with cause marketing?
That’s exactly what I asked Sarah Hill, CEO and chief storyteller for VR media company StoryUP, when I interviewed her earlier this year. Her response:
It creates a positive sentiment for the brand that is stepping up and saying, “We recognize this particular entity needs a voice and we’re going to make it happen.” In this ad-weary world, people are bombarded with 3,500 messages a day, according to The Guardian, and 90 percent don’t get through. Brands really need to be paying attention to things that cut through the noise, and sometimes that means turning the mirror onto other people. It might not have anything to do with their product, but people pay attention to that, especially in immersive media.
TOMS’s cause marketing has everything to do with their product, as the whole business model is to donate one pair of shoes for every pair customers buy. But the charitable brand is still a great example of using VR to tell stories about the causes that matter most to your company.
In “TOMS Virtual Giving Trip,” audiences travel with members of the TOMS team to a remote village in Peru and meet the children who have come to get their free pair of shoes. It’s an emotional and memorable experience, and one that drives home just how meaningful the TOMS mission is.
Customers who come into Toms flagship store in Venice, California, can sit in the “virtual reality chair” and use a VR headset to experience the video. Everyone else can watch it on YouTube 360.
For its annual Future of Retail report, media relations company Walker Sands surveyed more than 1,400 US consumers. When asked about VR, 55 percent said they think virtual reality e-commerce will impact their buying decisions, and 62 percent were interested in trying VR shopping.
Lowe’s has been an early adopter of this VR use case. At select Lowe’s locations around the US, shoppers can enter “Holorooms,” where they use Oculus Rift devices to visualize their home improvement projects, try out different looks, and get a feel for what their plans will look based on the actual room’s dimensions. Then they can share the 360-degree experience with family and friends at home using Google Cardboard.
Several auto manufacturers have put this strategy to work as well. For example, to promote the new Lexus LC 500, the brand created a 360 video putting the viewer behind the wheel for a quick test drive.
Telling your customers an engaging story is always a winning strategy. Or you could put them in the story and give them a truly unforgettable experience.
That’s what Samsung did to promote its Gear VR device. The company invited 27 Millennials from around the globe for a four-week training program designed to help them overcome their greatest fears. For example, those who were afraid of heights found themselves transported to the roof of a skyscraper. And those with public speaking fears had the opportunity to address packed lecture halls. After two weeks in the program, 87.5 percent of acrophobic subjects saw an average anxiety reduction of 23.6 percent, based on eye movement, heart rate, and a self-assessment.
Marriott Hotels also uses VR to help customers de-stress, but in a much more pleasant way. Hotel guests at many locations can now borrow a Samsung Gear VR headset for up to 24 hours, and use it to experience 3D videos of exotic locales in Chile, Rwanda, and Beijing. These “VR Postcards” follow real travelers on their journey to the Andes Mountains in Chile, an ice cream shop in Rwanda, and the streets of Beijing. The travelers tell their stories while viewers get the chance to be immersed in a dream vacation—without ever leaving the Marriott.
These are just a few of the use cases that brand marketers have already found for VR, and more are sure to emerge in 2017, as more and more brands enter the new space. If you’re looking for new ways to promote your brand, refresh tired content, and engage users who are clearly ready for a new kind of storytelling, it’s time to start thinking outside the box and inside the virtual world.