Virtual Reality Primer for Marketers

June 16, 2016
Contributor: Chris Pemberton

Navigate the hype with this guide to VR basics.

In 2015 subscribers to the Sunday edition of The New York Times were surprised when a Google Cardboard virtual reality viewer landed in their laps as they unfurled their papers. More than a million subscribers received a Google Cardboard viewer along with an invitation to experience a series of firsts.

“The Displaced” was the first time a major publisher experimented with virtual reality (VR) to tell a more immersive and engaging story. The Google Cardboard viewer was the first VR viewer or “headset” many Times subscribers ever experienced. And the NYTVR app was the first time a select few advertisers experimented with VR to tell their story as a marketing tactic.

Virtual reality is becoming a viable technology that marketing leaders will consider in their mix of strategies, noted Augie Ray, research director, Gartner for Marketing Leaders. Three early takeaways and trends for marketing with VR include:

  • Sales of VR displays are expected to grow rapidly
  • VR hardware primarily comes in two different types: Mobile through a smartphone and through a dedicated headset tethered to a PC or gaming console
  • There are four basic types of early VR marketing experiments

As part of assessing the viability of VR to drive marketing outcomes, it’s important to understand the four early experimental types and test cases of how marketers can use VR.

  1. Distribute VR content for those who have the appropriate hardwareThe easiest path for brands to enter marketing with virtual reality is to create VR content, such as an app or a 360-degree movie, and launch the content into app stores, websites, YouTube or Facebook. Consumers who have the right hardware enjoy the full VR experience while those without the hardware can access a simpler, less engaging version through their desktop browsers and mobile phones.
  2. Distribute VR content along with the capability to view itThe NYTVR app using Google Cardboard is a powerful example of how brands and publishers can bridge the capability gap by distributing inexpensive mobile VR viewers to consumers. To promote its upcoming film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” Disney partnered with Google and Verizon to launch a Google Cardboard VR experience; fans could visit a Verizon store to secure one of four free, limited-edition VR viewers themed around characters such as BB-8 and Kylo Ren.
  3. VR advertising and sponsored contentLufthansa, GE and Mini USA sponsored the initial launch of the The New York Times’ VR app using immersive content alongside the Times’ journalism content. Late in 2015, mobile ad network, Airpush, launched VirtualSKY, an ad network for VR ads. Mr. Ray noted that there will be a lot of change and innovation in VR advertising, and new capabilities, ad formats and vendors will evolve quickly as consumer hardware becomes more ubiquitous.
  4. VR on-site using dedicated hardwareThe richest VR marketing experiences are ones where brands provide the hardware, software and assistance at a specific site in the physical world. It’s the easiest path for consumers to experience the brand, however, it’s a more expensive option for brands. The Lowe’s Holoroom takes the guesswork out of envisioning a new kitchen or bathroom design by letting shoppers design their room with the help of a sales associate using a dedicated VR headset. Shoppers can then export the room design for later viewing at home on Google Cardboard.

“As buzz rises for VR marketing programs,” Mr. Ray said, “look for evidence that brands are succeeding, not just in entertaining consumers but in delivering marketing results for the organization.”

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