Over the past few months, more and more tech brands have asserted their place in the virtual reality landscape. Google, Facebook, Sony, Samsung, HTC, Microsoft and even the Chinese social search engine Baidu have entered the virtual reality realm. In late February, the cautious yet ever disruptive Apple won patent approval for virtual reality goggles and controllers that work in conjunction with the iPhone.
It has been forecasted that around 15m people will be in another reality by the end of 2016, and we can expect around 38 million people to own a virtual device of some kind by the end of 2018. With such fast-paced adoption occurring everywhere, we can expect 2020 to be very virtual.
Virtual reality – a channel, not a device
It wasn’t too long ago that people considered the smartphone to be just another device for digital communications. While true, that assumption is also misleading. For example, our research clearly shows that there is a big difference in the types of people using smartphones versus desktops, and those that use smartphones do so for different reasons and purposes than using desktops. This has huge implications for advertising, as user experiences are vastly different across different screens, e.g. banner ads tend to work somewhat well on a desktop but not at all on a smaller device.
As marketers, we have to think in a much more nuanced way about how we execute our campaigns on desktops, phones, watches, goggles, headsets, etc; as each of these environments have different users, who expect different experiences. The ‘just another device’ sort of thinking needs to shift towards the ‘another channel entirely’ approach.
Virtual content is media’s business
And as a new channel, virtual reality is set to redefine the whole media business.
As consumers have increasingly grown less tolerant of traditional ads, brands have started to look for new ways to use or create relevant content that consumers want to engage with. As a result, in recent years, media has moved more into being about the content itself.
Media agencies are already helping brands reach consumers through content marketing campaigns, as well as via the advertising around the content. But virtual reality is what’s next, as it will enable brands to create highly immersive content opportunities to an extremely captivated and increasingly scalable audience.
Why consumers are ready for it – the evolution of escapism
The idea of escaping into a virtual experience will seem quite natural. Years of smartphones, immersive gaming consoles, 3D movies and wearable devices like Google Glass and the Apple Watch have brought us to this point. Consumers, especially the younger ones, are at ease with sharing data, logging on, and escaping wherever they are. It was only a matter of time until we took the digital entertainment escape further by virtually removing ourselves from our current setting and entering into a wormhole that is virtual reality.
Virtual reality could now become the ‘fourth space’ – where the ‘first space’ is the home, the ‘second space’ is the workplace, and the ‘third space’ is the mobile communication sphere. The impact of virtual reality technology goes beyond the pure entertainment landscape, and has the potential to change people’s behaviour entirely.
Why marketers should get to work today
Virtual reality offers high levels of engagement. It’s hard to multitask when you are using a headset. You can’t do it halfway – it’s an all-or-nothing engulfing experience. Consumers’ attention span is extremely high and viewability is a given.
More importantly, if the new role of marketing is to be helpful to consumers – solving a problem, making information easy to find, alleviating boredom – then this will become an extremely fertile territory for developing new content.
Most brands will be interested in immersive experiences where people can interact with the content; so computer animation will be more favourable than real-world videos. Brand integration in gaming can help us imagine how brands could harness the power of virtual reality.
Moreover, as media brands like Google and Facebook start to use their platforms to host virtual reality videos and apps, the opportunities for content and advertising will expand exponentially. One thing is for sure, the big tech players will be looking for partners – media agencies and brands – that can help them boost adoption.
Media agencies need to be able to have this conversation on virtual reality today, because we know that in 2016, more clients will start to ask: ‘What’s our virtual strategy?’
By JR Little, Global Head of Innovation at Carat.
Image courtesy of Maurizio Pesce
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