Is VR Marketing Ever Going to Become a Thing?

After decades of featuring virtual reality in books and movies, it’s easy to forget that this futuristic technology is now a part of everyday life. But that’s no longer science fiction: VR is here to stay.

According to Statista, the number of active global VR users is projected to include a stunning 171 million people by 2018. Brands like Google, Sony, HTC, Oculus, and other competitors have all brought their own VR headsets to market, and smartphones are now powerful enough to power these experiences on their own.

Brands have been anticipating how VR marketing represents a new opportunity to build engaging customer experiences. So far, marketers have barely scratched the surface of VR’s marketing limits. But while the technology teems with potential, the reluctance of marketers in the face of growing opportunity has some wondering what has to happen before these brands make a commitment to creating VR campaigns.

It seems inevitable that marketers will eventually hit a tipping point where the technology can no longer be ignored. But the fulcrum of this change may have less to do with VR device adoption and more to do with marketers figuring out how VR can serve their marketing goals.

It Sounds Great, But . . .

Virtual reality is an exciting technology, but the majority of brands aren’t even dipping their toes into the water. According to Marketo, only 30 percent of Forbes Global 2000 B2C companies are experimenting with either augmented or virtual reality this year. And a survey from Yes Lifecycle Marketing found that 57 percent of retail brands don’t think VR is relevant to their organization.

Those numbers are even worse for B2B brands, since the VR experience lends itself more naturally to consumer experiences. Yes Lifecycle Marketing did note that some marketer fears of VR are related to their concern that they can’t build personalization into the VR experience as well as through other channels including social and dynamic offers. These respondents feel that in order to do anything useful with virtual reality, they first have to overhaul and upgrade their personalization efforts.

That’s a fair point of concern. A one-size-fits-all approach may work when you’re using VR to promote the new Bladerunner 2049 movie, but it’s not as useful when you’re trying to help consumers find clothing, or when you’re trying to sell them on software that solves a big business problem. Even though VR has a choose-your-own adventure feel to it, there are limitations to how that channel’s content can be customized to every individual who straps on a headset.

But not every brand needs to market itself through the kind of experience VR offers. We can debate the merits of creating these experiences, and how a little creativity might open up options for brands of all shapes, sizes, and industries, but it’s just as important to emphasize the concept that VR’s marketing value may not always be about the experience itself. Think of how a social network functions: While brands may not be socially engaged the way their target audience is, they have chosen to focus on the behavior and engagement that takes place through these channels and have developed strategies to place themselves at the intersection of this activity.

VR marketing can work the same way: While consumers might come for a specific experience, the marketing component could focus more on positioning the brand within that experience, just as brands do with marketing strategies in the real world. The VR experience isn’t the marketing itself: Rather, it’s the brand placement within that experience that offers value to marketing strategy.

What It Will Take to Win Marketers Over

Early successes in VR marketing illustrate the varied strategies brands can use to promote their product. The New York Times scored a huge victory by building a VR experience that puts its storytelling abilities on display. As Search Engine Journal points out, the NYT VR app earned more than 1.5 million content views and 50,000 downloads upon its release, making it the company’s most quickly adopted app ever.

The VR storytelling experience is a natural fit for the New York Times, because its primary product—storytelling—is on display, building emotional connections with readers and strengthening the brand’s reputation. But the same content—no matter how impactful or memorable—probably wouldn’t serve the business goals of a clothing retailer, let alone a software-as-a-service company.

Compare that to the outdoor outfitter Merrell, which created a VR experience that lets hikers enjoy breathtaking views and experiences through a VR headset. The company sells hiking shoes and other outdoor gear, but that gear is all in service of an experience that consumers desire. In the brand’s VR experience, the company included a nifty piece of marketing: A Merrell company flag waving at the peak of a hike.

Merrell’s use of VR is much more applicable to other brands than the NYT VR example, and it shows how companies can use simple marketing strategies to leverage an innovative technology. As Pique Ventures CEO Bonnie Foley-Wong wrote in Forbes, these small brand insertions into a VR environment can be a cost-effective and time-efficient way to make use of VR, even if your company is only advertising within someone else’s VR experience.

It’s no different than placing an ad on a website that caters to a relevant audience. And, as Foley-Wong points out, it’s possible to use automation for this marketing opportunity, inserting ads into relevant available VR spaces. This type of marketing may be a necessary first step for brands that aren’t ready to invest in creating their own VR experiences, or for brands that haven’t figured out what that experience would look like.

VR isn’t cheap, and creating an experience for the sake of having one is a terrible business strategy. But that doesn’t mean you should ignore the marketing opportunity altogether. Instead, find a way to get engaged while exploring other ways to engage a virtual audience. VR marketing is a gold mine of opportunity, but it’s going to take a little digging to uncover the best strategies. In the meantime, find simple ways to test this new platform without stretching your resources too thin.

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Featured image attribution: Guido van Nispen

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