Virtual reality was one of the most talked about trends at CES 2016 and Samsung Gear VR puts the immersive technology within consumer reach.
So, should brands start thinking more seriously about VR content?
There is some scepticism out there. After all, the similarly-hyped 3D TV phenomenon died a humiliating death.
But early signs indicate that VR could be different. For one thing, it has many more potential applications from a corporate as well as a consumer standpoint.
It’s true that gamers and Millennials are likely to represent the highest percentage of early adopters. For instance, a recent Mintel report indicated that in the UK, consumers aged 16 to 34 show the strongest interest in wearables.
However, there are already some powerful examples of businesses using the technology – not for a gimmick, but to deliver tangible benefits. Architectural and construction firms are using VR to bring blueprints to life, enabling better refinement of plans and reducing costly onsite mistakes and changes.
It’s also being deployed in the medical sector to test the fit and function of implants and devices, as well to enhance training and treatment protocols.
This breadth of uptake points towards a robust future for VR, one that could unlock exciting possibilities for brand marketers.
A critical factor for brands will be grasping that VR isn’t exclusively a domain for tech enthusiasts and gamers. There is a likely to be a steady shift towards its increased use in the home, the workplace and educational establishments. It follows that the demographics of people accessing the technology, and the role it plays in their lives, could shift very quickly.
Marketers need to start early, educating their Boards on this point and ideally earmarking budget for early exploration of VR content. In today’s world, consumers and buyers expect branded content to keep pace with the technologies they are using. Marketers that get in on the action now are likely to steal a march on the competition.
What will consumers look for in branded VR content?
One of the most practical applications of VR is enabling consumers to ‘try before they buy’. This can manifest itself in several ways, from allowing customers to visualise products in the context of their real life to bridging the gap between online and high street shopping with enhanced product experiences.
Tools like Retale VR from Oculus claim to enable customers to ‘encounter…products more deeply without ever leaving the comfort of [their] sofa’.
Amazon’s new ‘Thought It. Bought It’ campaign underlines the rise in smartphone shopping and consumers’ increasing appetite for making purchase decisions ‘in the moment’. This trend represents a golden opportunity.
Brands can cleverly use brand propositions as a call to action following VR experiences. Fascinated by the Pyramids? Why not visit them? Like that dress at London Fashion Week? Buy it here. Horrified at poverty in Africa? Make a difference with a donation.
However, perhaps the most exciting potential lies in VR’s ability to take customer engagement to a higher level. It enables brands to provide unique user experiences, like the Audi showroom VR activity delivered via Samsung Gear.
So how can brands harness VR effectively?
Before jumping headfirst into VR, brands need to do two things. Firstly, it’s vital to understand the customer-base and review all the usual persona considerations in a VR context. What motivates them? What are they interested in? How do they like to be approached?
The second step is to use customer insight to help apply VR capabilities in a meaningful and relevant way to specific sectors. Brands operating in the retail sphere might explore ways for customers to fully immerse themselves in products.
Education sector brands can develop new ways to bring learning to life. Manufacturers can give buyers or consumers a more comprehensive experience of a product before it’s been built. There is a broad range of applications that don’t need to confirm to the ‘norms’ that VR has become traditionally recognised for.
Embracing 360° film content could prove a useful stepping stone on the path to VR. At its simplest, it’s about finding ways to create a more immersive brand experience. But ultimately brands need to set their sights on transcending this to create experiences that are both immersive and interactive.
Nobody knows exactly where VR is going. But the fact is, it’s here and it looks set to stay. Brands that experiment with VR content now, finding ways to use it economically and effectively, could be at a distinct advantage in the months and years ahead.
David Chandler is director, strategic accounts at Harte Hanks