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The Future is Virtual: Why Content is Taking on a New Reality

Written by Juliet Stott, The Content Council

Virtual Reality is set to become the content marketing medium of the future, with many calling it the ‘next frontier of branded content.’ Deloitte valued the VR industry at $1 billion this year. Goldman Sachs estimates the market will be worth $80 billion by 2025. The price of VR hardware is falling, and the Samsung VR Gear headset, at $100, is predicted (due to its price point, functionality and increasing availability of VR videos) to be this Christmas’ number one gift to give. Nicholas Longano, VR specialist at New York’s leading content agency Manifest, said “VR is a haven for content marketers.  It's a way to engage an audience and immerse them in a message, like never before. If done right, and it's compelling, entertaining and serves a utility, then VR will become the most powerful advertising platform in generations.”

With brands such as Unicef, National Geographic, Marriott International, Coca-Cola, New York Times and even pop sensation Beyoncé already using VR, it’s only a matter of time before every brand incorporates some form of VR into their content strategy. We’ve spoken to three VR specialists who’ve shared their practical tips on how you too can leverage this technology:

1.     At exhibitions or conferences

VR is an accessible way to demonstrate products and/or services on a wider scale. London-based VR specialist Mbryonic has been creating VR marketing materials for their clients to use in sales pitches, exhibitions and internal marketing events for several years. Mbryonic’s founding director Tom Szirtes said “VR is a great way to start a conversation. It enables you to tell stories about your product or brand in a unique way that engages your audience. If you use it at an exhibition, it can draw potential customers in and give them the wow factor. They’re going to have an amazing experience and they’re going to want to talk to you.”

2.     In experiential marketing

VR never fails to impress new audience, says Mbryonic’s Szirtes. People using VR at the moment are benefiting from its novelty. Most people haven’t tried a headset on, but when they do [try it on] they get a big smile or scream; that’s a great reaction for a brand to associate themselves with. We’ve seen VR being used a lot in experiential marketing pop-ups for that reason, as well as the PR angle it provides. Due to the limited numbers of headsets in the market, we’ve seen VR being mostly deployed in experiential marketing pop-ups,” added Szirtes. He cites Jaguar’s use of VR to promote its position as the ‘official car of The Wimbledon Championships’ this year, where the brand created a VR experience for tennis fans to “fly” into Centre Court and “feel” what it would be like to be the current British Champion, Andy Murray, as an interesting example.

3.     For driving sales

VR should serve a purpose, says Manifest’s Nicholas Longano. “It should go beyond the ‘hello, I’m the next cool device, so go buy my brand’,” he said. “Each execution needs thought behind it, to understand the platform, the user  and the user experience with it.” He believes Volvo's CX-90 test drive was an exemplary use of VR with utility. “Volvo allowed the user to have a cockpit view of the vehicle and a virtual test drive. It entertained, showed off the features of the car and sold out their first run of orders in two days,” he said. Whether consumers are in the market for buying a car like Volvo or not is irrelevant, according to Longano, because he believes VR is all about discovery.” “When someone puts a headset o,n they will remember the experience, as the brain reacts very differently to something when it is fully immersed within it. People want to be informed – and there’s no better way to recollect information than when they put one of those headsets on,” he said.

4.     To evoke emotions:

There has to be a level of authenticity to VR, says Ashley Brenner, creative director of Imprint. “The current fantasy/gaming style of VR has value, but is not realistic in the way consumers want a branded experience to be in real life,” she said. Brands must be able to make a path for their consumers, bring them through an emotionally connected experience or journey,” said Brenner. She believes VR works when emotional cues are brought to life through a visual experience, and cites National Geographic’s 360 VR video, which celebrated the centennial year of Yosemite National Park with President Obama, as a good example. “It was really well done, from a visually creative standpoint. National Geographic brought the reality of a physical environment, not a fantasy, to their audience. The experience had an emotional pull. It enabled the viewer to really connect with the national park and make it real [for them].

Virtual Reality Hardware: The Low-Down. What to use and when to use it.

If you’re thinking of using VR as part of your content strategy, there are currently three levels of entry, each with their own pros and cons, for use in content marketing.

Google Cardboard: The real pros are its price and it’s good for viewing 360-degree films. The cons are that it is flimsy and doesn’t snuggly fit around the face. There’s an element of light leakage, meaning the user isn’t fully immersed in the VR experience.

Example: The New York Times used it as a marketing aid last year to promote its first VR film, Displaced, about the 60 million people who are driven from their homes due to war. Every NYT subscriber received a free Google Cardboard to accompany the news report, which garnered two awards at the Cannes Lions festival in France.

Samsung Gear VR: The pros significantly outweigh the cons (mainly that it only works with Samsung smartphones). Samsung has really thought about the functionality and the end user’s experience. For marketers it’s an accessible, relatively cheap and easy to use piece of tech to demonstrate your products at conferences. With it set to be the Christmas gift of 2016, expect widespread consumer adoption and increased demand for VR apps in 2017.

Example: NBC teamed up with Samsung Gear VR to create some unique coverage of this year’s Olympics. It filmed 100 hours of VR coverage, including 360-degree videos of the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as covered events such as basketball, gymnastics and beach volleyball.

Oculus Rift (Owned by Facebook): The pros are that you can create some fantastically realistic VR videos that immerse the end user in the experience and ensure those who take part will remember (and hopefully talk about) your brand forever. The cons are the expense. It’s not portable, in that the headsets are attached to a cable, so you need to create an installation to accompany the experience (which is an added expense).

Example: The international hotel group Marriott created a teleporter machine (like an old-fashioned telephone booth) using this technology. It invited people from the streets to step inside and put on the headset, where it transported them to far-off lands (which happens to have hotels).