Useful and compelling: the future of VR in marketing

Interruptive advertising won't work in VR, so marketers need a two-tiered approach for when it goes mainstream, says Zone's Ross Basham...

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It feels like VR has been hailed as being on the verge of ‘going mainstream’ for some time now. And, more than a year on from the launch of the Oculus Rift and HTC Vive, the gaming market is finding its feet. But VR is yet to make its mark on the general public at large.

There are obvious reasons for this slow adoption curve: prohibitive cost, lack of content, a reluctance to cut oneself off from the real world. And let's not forget the baked-in gender bias and ableism in VR, from the software that causes nausea in women to the ill-fitting headsets that only come in one size. But that hasn’t stopped many CMOs from declaring that VR can be a game-changer in marketing. Indeed, a survey found that 26 per cent of CMOs believe that VR and AR will have the biggest impact on marketers by 2020.
So, what of ‘straight’ advertising? After all, broadcast television and the internet are paid for by advertising, and given that Facebook – primarily an ad platform – owns Oculus and is collecting its users’ data, it follows that VR cannot escape its clutches. But if interrupting the immersive world is a total no-no, the advertising model is unclear. Is it pre-roll? Product placement? Something daringly new to meet a new medium?
The opportunities for brands over the next few years are huge. Yes, costs need to come down, and other issues such as headset size and wires need to be addressed. But marketers need to decide on their business model now, because with upcoming improvements in tech – 5G network, 4k displays, longer battery life and continued advances in smartphones – VR could finally step into the mainstream.

Yet the most surefire way to kill a medium is with terrible marketing. There are plenty of examples of that from brands rushing to ‘do something with VR’. After all, it's relatively easy to invite a few people into a virtual booth, give them a Rift headset then stick the resulting 360 videos on Facebook. You might feel vindicated through racking up some impressions, even though there is no real experience for the audience to take away.

It is clear to me that interruptive advertising does not fit into VR – people will simply take the headset off if you invade their immersive experience. No, the future lies in two areas: utility and branded content. Two years ago it was an easy PR win for being first. Make a video of the experience, distribute it and wait for the awards to roll in. That luxury has gone now, so branded content has to be great to get attention. And there is amazing content being made – for example Always by Stubhub (pictured above), which uses VR to immerse viewers in the world of concertgoers. This shows the potential of VR – an empathic, truly compelling experience.

The flipside is content that provides utility – for example, experiential videos that train engineers to fix jumbo jets, or VR reconstructions of crime scenes for use in court cases. The B2B world is ripe for widespread adoption, as more and more businesses take advantage of VR’s ability to solve their logistical problems.