Experiential Marketers Should Pony Up For Virtual Reality

If experiential marketing is the fun and exciting Wild West, then the platforms we use to carry us from brand concepts to successful campaigns are the horses we marketers ride.

Virtual reality (VR) is no longer a hard-to-obtain and difficult-to-use gizmo that only techies can get their hands on. As we speak, it’s in the process of becoming something all brands can access and have fun with.

There’s no question the marketing world is on the cusp of something huge. VR is impressive, functional, and absolutely irresistible—and as someone who’s in the business of providing branded experiences to consumers, I can barely contain my excitement.

But before we go galloping off into the virtual reality open range, let’s hold our horses and make sure we truly understand the opportunity at hand.

VR Is Just a Pony
VR’s legs are still wobbly. You can’t just throw your brand on its back and expect it to carry you victoriously into the sunset. VR technology is still in its early stages. Most commercially available hardware and platforms are only in their first or second generations, and they’re constantly evolving and improving.

VR needs to be seen for what it is: a tool that will enhance (not replace) experiential marketing. It’s not a program, it’s not a fully baked strategy, and it’s definitely not going to do your job for you. It still requires a skilled rider—or marketing team—to come in and make it run.

Introducing a VR experience for the sake of novelty isn’t enough. It needs clear and organic reasoning behind its adoption. Marketers must keep brand context top of mind if they expect consumers to buy in. Like any other successful activation, VR requires planning, goal setting, metric tracking, and ongoing optimization in order to drive ROI. Done right, the results can be glorious.

For example, consider when the Star Wars franchise used the technology to build anticipation for its 2015 movie “The Force Awakens.” Via Jakku Spy, a Google Cardboard VR device, users were sent to a faraway planet and immersed in a story leading up to the events of the movie. The campaign masterfully hooked people by releasing a new scene every few days, promising that users who stayed the course would gain exclusive knowledge about the upcoming film.

Giddy Up Into The Future
As technology catches up to our expectations, sophisticated VR solutions will emerge that don’t require a Disney-sized budget. Moore’s Law is very much at play here; if you’re currently experiencing sticker shock when browsing your options, be patient.

In the meantime, expect these three VR-driven tactics to jump to the forefront of experiential marketing in the coming years:

1. 360-degree video: Already commercially available at big-box stores and online retailers, 360-degree video cameras make it fairly simple for brands to create passive VR experiences. This technology allows us to draw in consumers and offer them an immersive experience without spending top dollar for full-fledged VR equipment.

Given that 64% of smartphone users express a desire to view items in true-to-size form and another 52% say they want tech support to include 360-degree views, 360-degree video is a great entry point for brands looking to scratch this itch today.

2. Augmented reality: Sure, this isn’t the same as VR, but it will be an important accompanying feature in the future. In fact, Goldman Sachs expects the AR and VR markets will be worth a combined $185 billion by 2025.

Unlike VR, which wholly transports us to another world, AR adds an additional layer to reality. The overwhelming success of Pokémon GO is a perfect example of AR in action. It broke Apple App Store download records in its first week, and 21 million people are playing the game in the U.S.—which is resulting in a gold mine of behavioral data.

3. Wearables: RFID and Bluetooth technologies already allow us to create a net of interactivity with the world around us, and there’s limitless potential for expansion. It’s up to marketers and brands to determine how to best use that to capture consumers’ share of mind.

We’re not at a place where the average person wants a bulky device strapped to the front of his or her face, but as wearables improve and get smaller, they will help make all facets of VR easier, more comfortable, and more fun. Pokémon GO is already taking advantage of this technology: With an auxiliary accessory, users can play the game while their phones remain in their pockets.

VR is officially here—and it’s here to stay. Though the technology is inherently compelling, marketers still need to formulate smart strategies and ensure they’re offering groundbreaking, unforgettable experiences that are on-brand. Consumers are already on board; now, it’s time for brands to begin making the most of this opportunity.

VR isn’t necessarily the new sheriff in town, but it sure is a pretty pony to ride in on.

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