Over the past three years, virtual reality (VR) has evolved from a lab experiment to a platform for the media and consumers to engage with. And as it grows, more news organisations, marketers and PRs want to get involved to explore its new storytelling possibilities. Due to the immersive nature of VR, brands can give people an incredibly powerful experience.

But is it too early for brands to invest in VR? Digital priorities are based on audiences’ needs, and with good quality headsets costing around £500, it is unlikely that many people will be able to engage with VR content. Yes, there is Google Cardboard but it’s hardly the same quality of experience. Similarly, due to technological restrictions, great VR content is limited.

So, should brands be using VR now – demonstrating innovative thinking? Or should they wait until the technology has evolved?

Bad content will kill VR

People’s early experiences of VR will make or break it. 3D TV died due to bad content and the lack of universal use, and it’s a good reminder for those investing in VR.

If brands want to jump into VR with two feet they need to invest in producing amazing VR content. Companies are now devoting more time into thinking about what works in VR and the challenges involved in VR storytelling and 360° content. The key is to create compelling VR content that gets people coming back for more. And that’s not necessarily the right format for all brands. Not yet, anyway.

Niko Chauls of USA Today said that “Nothing is going to be more effective in getting people to consume more than compelling content experiences in any content category, and nothing is going to be more effective in getting people to NOT pick up a VR headset than bad content.”

The evolution of our living rooms

One common misconception is that VR is the ‘next TV’. You cannot expect people to wear a headset in their living room and engage with your content every day. If you do start trialling VR content with your customers, you must consider their surroundings. Are they viewing this in their home? If so, should they be standing, sitting? Our living rooms weren’t designed for VR, our sofas are static and furniture is placed so we’re sat comfortably. VR needs us to move and look around.

At the moment, VR is a gimmick that needs to find its USP and provide a unique, worthwhile experience. Until then, it will be something that people use once or twice but then set aside. So, if you want to start experimenting with VR content you should first think about how people are already consuming it. It is unclear as to how many people are using their headsets and how frequently. Therefore, you need to know your demographic and try user experience testing to see if your customers will respond well and engage with your content. Furthermore, don’t create VR content because you want to jump on the VR bandwagon. Your content must be appropriate for VR and have a level of specificity that is unique to your brand and audience.

For example, a couple of years ago, outdoor retailer Merrell launched its advanced hiking shoe. To accompany the launch, the team created a VR experience at the Sundance festival. The experience involved users wearing an Oculus Rift headset while walking across bridges, holding physical ropes and touching a rock wall. The aim was to make people feel as though they were going on a hike. The Merrell team was able to look beyond the living room and create an environment for VR to be enjoyed in, resulting in a more immersive and exciting experience.

Headsets: Mind the gap

Of course, many brands will be tempted to reach the masses with VR, producing content for Google Cardboard and other lower-budget headsets. However, this content – and these headsets – face the very real possibility of being written off as a gimmick and discarded after several uses.  At this stage of VR’s evolution, it is perhaps best to focus on producing excellent content for one platform and engaging a smaller audience than trying to put all your eggs in one basket. This will help VR to ‘take root’ rather than simply providing mass-market, disposable material.

It’s a question of who not how…for now

What do you want from your VR content? Do you want to focus on quality, experience, or reach? For brands wanting to reach the masses, there’s no point in investing in VR. It’s too early. However, if you want to make an impact on a small group, a VR experience could be incredibly powerful.

For example, Marriot Hotels recently created the first-ever travel experience. Using the Oculus Rift, they sent guests to Wai’anapanapa Black Sand Beach in Maui and the top of Tower 42 in London. They create a real experience, considering the environment and the audience they want to reach, which gives people a glimpse of what it is like to be there in reality. If VR is going to be a long-term strategy for your company, then brands need to invest like Marriot Hotels.

Virtually educated

The truth is that VR is still at its early stages and hasn’t yet found its niche. Whilst the technology develops and consolidates, there is still a lot of work to be done to educate the public about VR and its uses. Brands have a responsibility to show consumers why VR content is worth engaging with.

It’s definitely still worth brands experimenting with VR, and there are low barriers to entry like using basic VR approaches such as 360 and Google Cardboard. But to bring to life the immersive, exciting storytelling experiences that come with VR, it is essential that tech companies, brands, news organisations and media agencies all work together to overcome the challenges that come with it.

10166365646_9d9a2ea50c_zVirtual reality (VR) is the next frontier for marketing and public relations. From VR games and entertainment to the latest VR capabilities for the enterprise, there is no question that virtual reality will become more embedded in our daily lives. For marketing and PR professionals, virtual reality is the biggest disruptive technology since social media. With virtual reality, brands can offer a broad range of experiences to help consumers and influencers alike become fully immersed in a wide range of stories.

Marketing and PR professionals will use virtual reality technology to develop stories that transcend the limits of time and geography. Travel companies will duplicate the sensation of sunbathing on the beach; enterprise technology companies will simulate business scenarios where IT directors can live the benefits of a new tool; mobile phone companies will reach unprecedented numbers of people with immersive demos of new releases – and all these experiences will happen without the user having to leave their home or office.

Virtual reality is set to have its first billion-dollar year in 2016 and is on track to become worth $80 billion by 2025. At this exponential rate of growth, the future of marketing and communications will certainly become centred on virtual reality. Every marketer or PR professional will need to understand how to effectively utilise VR to remain relevant in the next decade.

With this in mind, what are some of the possibilities marketers and PRs have for integrating VR into their campaigns?

Product launches

Virtual reality will effectively simulate the experience of a live demo, creating a quick and painless process. Marketing and PR professionals will be able to offer both consumers and media influencers alike a first-hand look at new products and services without ever having to send a physical product sample. And more importantly, the demo can be guided or tailored to the end user to create more positive outcomes.

An insider’s view on events and press conferences

Consumers will have the live-event experience of a concert, show or sports match without leaving the comfort of their homes. Journalists will attend multiple press conferences and liaise with multiple brands without leaving their desks. The virtual reality simulations will enable users to drop in and out of events at their convenience while enabling brands to increase overall attendance and awareness without maxing out physical venue capacity.

Authentic in-store experiences

For retail brands that are either wholly e-commerce or lacking physical stores in target markets, virtual reality will become the missing link in building brand loyalty and delighting consumers. VR users will be able to test and try on products as if they were in a physical store. And by integrating big data insights, the virtual store can also be personalised to each consumer so that only products or services interesting to the individual will be shown on the virtual shop floor.

“Day in the life” of business leaders, celebrities and other public figures

Public figures will be closer to their audience than ever before. In the past decade, users have become more ingrained in public figures’ private lives through social media platforms such as Instagram, Twitter and Snapchat. Through these tools, users have access to behind-the-scenes moments taken by their favourite celebrity, politician or business leader. Virtual reality will take this a step further – you will be able to live a day in the life of public figures through their point of view. These experiences will create more empathy and support with fans.

These examples only scratch the surface of what is possible! With big data and personalisation thrown into the mix, every brand story will become personal and uber-targeted for each and every consumer.  While it’s still early days for the VR technology itself, it’s never too early for marketers and PR professionals to begin thinking about how virtual reality can elevate a campaign into a fully integrated, immersive and comprehensive experience.

Photo credit: Sergey Galyonkin via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

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