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How RYOT ‘Hacked’ The Media Industry With The Help Of Virtual Reality

For an engaging story about how 360-degree video and virtual-reality films have the power to drive empathy and action, look no further than Molly Swenson.

The CMO and co-founder of immersive media company RYOT, acquired in 2016 by AOL for Huffington Post, shared her insights with Adobe Summit attendees, in Las Vegas, about how to turn passive observers into active participants. Her work with Fortune 500 brands and causes has resulted in Oscar-nominated storytelling on how to hack the ad ecosystem. (Check out the two videos at the end of this article for examples of RYOT in action.)

Alan Hart, host of the Marketing Today podcast (featured weekly on CMO.com), conducted the fireside chat with Swenson, who was among Forbes’ 30 Under 30 2017 list in Media and Adweek’s 2016 Young Influentials.

Among her main messages:

• “At RYOT, our goal is to figure out how to make something that is important interesting enough so that it becomes important to other people. You need to believe that what you are working on is important and needs to be in the world. I think this is the basic job of a marketer.”

• “If you are doing something that has never been done before, it is an easier way to hack into earned media. When we started RYOT, we had no budget to pay for paid media, so we had to create content that was interesting.”

• “VR and AR helped us get on the media landscape map because it was a way to make what is important interesting, immersive, and engaging. These help us tell better stories. ... People said, ‘Oh, my God, a use case for VR and AR that isn’t about games. How novel.’ It felt to us that we had hacked into the news media by using a new medium about stories that people had been telling, but now in a more interesting way.”

• “By the way, there were things that didn’t work for us, like jumping on the Periscope and Google Glass bandwagons. VR helped us fulfill RYOT’s potential and purpose. We didn’t just measure our site traffic. We also measured how many people we were converting and moving from passive readers into active participants. We saw that just about everyone who put a VR headset on and watched our videos wanted to take action because they felt a presence and urgency from our message, versus news headlines that they had been reading forever.”

• “As marketers, use your discretionary funds to experiment with things that may be a riskier. Be bold. Non-bold marketing won’t get you anywhere. It is easier to get other people in your marketing ecosystem involved as you experiment if there is a clear purpose to what you are trying to do and learn. We’ve never paid anything for celebrities who do our voice-overs because they believe in the project’s purpose and cause.”

• “We are being asked by many 360 hardware manufacturers to experiment with their early prototypes and give them feedback from use in the real world. The creative process needs to inform product development and engineering.”

• “As documentarians, most of what has influenced our storytelling is people and the stories that they want to tell. This can be applied and reverse-engineered for brand marketers. People can be incredible vehicles for your story if they are representing your brand authentically. ... You don’t need a big celebrity to tell your brand story, unless they are truly a big fan of your brand and represent your brand’s values. Authenticity is the currency we are using in marketing. Brands and consumers have responded to this.”

• “We find that many of the brands we work with have compelling stories of what they are doing, especially around the causes they are involved with that they are not telling yet. This is usually a good entry point for us.”

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