British author, inventor, and television series host Arthur C. Clarke once said, “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.”
We can’t deny the magic of virtual reality. The film and video game industries were quick to hop aboard the VR train, but the technology only recently has started to work its way into the toolkits of marketing executives because of how different it is from every other medium.
VR capitalizes on the latest consumer technologies available via smartphones, giving users the ability to experience brands in unique and exciting ways. As time passes, it has become more cost-effective and realistic for companies of all sizes to implement.
While incredibly trendy at the moment, VR is not the right solution for every company. When it’s done for the wrong reasons, VR can quickly become an expensive gimmick that flops with consumers.
Games are fun, of course, but they’re probably not the best use of VR for most companies. Unless a VR experience demonstrates the utility of a product or integrates with the promise of a brand in a relevant way, then it’s simply a distraction. VR should only be used to serve a very specific purpose: reinforcing any core strategy of a business.
If you feel like your company needs to adopt VR, focus on creating useful consumer experiences. Use the technology to demonstrate the utility of a product or bring your brand promise to life in a relevant way.
For example, our team worked on a project with a major tractor manufacturing company that allows users to climb into one of the company’s new combines and “test drive” the machine from the comfort of their own couches. VR allows for product demonstrations in otherwise unlikely places: Hauling massive combines across the country isn’t practical, but putting a headset on a potential buyer in a showroom or at a trade show is incredibly doable.
Let’s say you work for a consumer electronics manufacturer. Instead of designing a virtual whack-a-mole game featuring your brand, you might create a VR experience that allows users to demo the form factor of your products—enabling them to turn the item around and see it in detail without any need to visit a brick-and-mortar store.
How To Know Whether VR Makes Sense
While VR has plenty of potential pitfalls, it can be a great way to showcase your brand. Before you embark on a VR project, know why you’re doing it, what you hope to gain, whether you can afford it, and whether your customers will engage.
It’s tempting for companies to test the latest “shiny penny” marketing tactic, but it’s important to establish whether it’s actually the best tool to achieve your goals. Will VR support your brand or the purpose of your product? Is it the right medium to connect and engage with target consumers?
In early 2016, Coca-Cola and McDonald’s tried to enter the VR arena. Coca-Cola designed a 12-pack that allowed consumers to turn the cardboard soda boxes into VR glasses. Similarly, McDonald’s in Sweden offered a limited run of Happy Meal boxes that could fold into VR headsets. While marketers applauded both efforts, it’s unclear whether either approach actually sold any burgers or soda.
Once you’ve determined VR might mesh with your brand, think about whether it will resonate with your audience. Will they find it exciting and engaging? If the technology won’t click with your customers or enhance your brand experience in a meaningful way, what’s the point?
While VR seems to be exploding with the arrival of the Oculus Rift, HTC Vive, and Samsung Gear VR, it’s still a niche market that requires a significant investment. The Vive, for instance, costs $800 and requires users to have a high-end computer. Cheaper options such as Google Cardboard are available, but the experience doesn’t match that of higher-end units. Unless you’re certain your audience has the necessary equipment, think twice before embracing VR.
Thinking Two (Virtual) Steps Ahead
If you’re going to experiment with VR, make sure you can do it well. Be prepared to set aside an appropriate budget to develop a high-quality VR experience. In a 2016 study, 40% surveyed said money was a major deterrent for their organizations in proceeding with VR.
The costs associated with VR can vary greatly depending on a project’s complexity. Are you going to film 360-degree footage of the real world, or do you plan to create your own virtual space? The process typically involves a lot more than simply shooting video. If you try to cut corners, you’ll probably end up with disappointed users.
The best VR experiences end with a strong call to action. What’s the point of investing so much time and money into a project if consumers aren’t driven to do something?
Figure out the next logical step, and include some bait to entice users. Have plans to tie your VR experience into a larger campaign, including a purposeful customer relationship management component that allows you to capture information and measure performance. After users test out the virtual version of our client’s latest combine, we ask them to share feedback and their contact information to allow our client to follow up.
As with most trends, time will tell whether VR is simply a passing fad or an integral part of the marketing world. In the meantime, approach the dazzling lure of VR magic with some caution and critical thought. Ensure VR truly makes sense for your brand and product as well as your audience, and figure out whether you’re willing to spend the time and money necessary to do this powerful tech trick right.