The Thing Every Marketer Needs to Understand About Virtual Reality

Eric Suliga, Creative Director

We were at CES two weeks ago, and all of Las Vegas seemed to be intoxicated with something. We know what you’re thinking...and it wasn’t the free wine and beer passed out at C Space every evening. It wasn’t even Snoop Dogg’s epic performance at our annual CES party.

It was the conference’s collective excitement over virtual reality.

No matter what session you attended, you had better odds of winning a bet on whether “virtual reality” would be mentioned than you did on any of the 159 craps tables on The Strip (yes, we did the math). But while much of the buzz is around VR’s new, cutting-edge qualities, it’s clear that the technology is going mainstream. Research from Piper Jaffray estimated that over 10 million VR headsets would be sold in 2016. This has left consumers, creators and advertisers giddy with excitement.

So what is it about strapping on a heavy headset and interacting with make-believe that’s going to stick after the novelty wears off? It comes down to storytelling. VR has the ability to tell a completely immersive story while blocking out real life, which is a gold mine for those in the business of storytelling (aka marketers). For an industry that relies on being the first, best and brightest this is an important point to grasp.

The Not-So-Harsh Reality of VR Storytelling

Experiencing a story through VR, augmented reality, mixed reality or even 360-degree video provides an entirely different perspective for the user. They see, hear and feel the story in ways no other medium offers.

Experiences are everything in our business, so we expect VR stories to forge deeper, emotional connections between users and the characters, locations, products and brands that help the story unfold. For better or worse, this means traditional advertising won’t work. VR users aren't receptive to anything that disrupts or takes away from their experience. According to Peter Naylor, Senior VP of Ad Sales at Hulu, “it’s about adjacency, not interruption.”

This is why we expect to see a resurgence of the product placement, and an intensified focus on brands providing value for their customers. Ironically, advertisers can now wipe their brow of the stress caused by pre-roll blindness, ad blocking and ad fraud--those simply don’t exist in a VR environment.

Early Adopters: Travel, Auto, Entertainment & Music

Imagine the possibilities for the travel, automotive, entertainment and music industries alone. With VR, travel companies can show consumers what it feels like to experience new destinations. Auto manufacturers and dealers can reinvent what it means to “test drive” a car. TV networks and movie studios can create supplementary content that drives engagement and interest for big-screen productions (the creators of Interseller, Sully and Game of Thrones are already experimenting).

But the potential for VR to enhance a music experience intrigues us most. Music is already a shared passion point among people, and musicians are continuously seeking new ways to make a name (and income) for themselves by connecting with fans. We’ve already seen a few artists test the waters. Recently, Deadmau5 capitalized on the promise of VR by releasing an interactive, gamified VR experience to entertain and engage his fans. Back in 2014, Coldplay led the charge by partnering with NextVR to deliver a live concert experience to those at home--something the industry is expecting to see a lot more of in the next year.

Right now, the only limiting factor is the availability of VR headsets--but with new announcements of more affordable VR equipment coming out every day, we can expect to see all industries jump into VR.

New research indicates that the excitement around VR isn’t just hype, but that there are real marketing benefits. A recent survey from Greenlight VR revealed that 71% of consumers feel VR makes brands seem “forward-thinking” and “modern.” Even 53% confirmed they’d be more likely to purchase from a brand that uses VR than from one that doesn’t.

So how should marketers approach creating VR content?

It’s no secret that VR production requires big budgets. Copy and pasting what’s been done on TV and digital is out of the question because it simply doesn't translate well. Creating thoughtful, high-quality VR content should always be the goal--because even the thought of a poorly produced VR experience makes us feel woozy á la Blair Witch Project, circa 1999.

That is why it’s so important to have a clear content strategy in place to ensure the final product is worth the investment. There’s also no shame in experimenting with cheaper, more accessible alternatives like 360 degree video. No matter how a brand chooses to dip its toe into the sea of VR possibilities, this is an exciting time to be a storyteller!

Interested in catching up on more marketer takeaways from CES 2017? Check out our live recap blogs from Day 1 and Day 2.