We asked two ad/marketing executives to go beyond the “wow” and look at the technology’s essential value propositions.
But aside from the pending issues of cost and installed base, there’s one essential question:
What does virtual reality offer marketers that can’t be provided by other, more established (read: cheaper and easier-to-manage) technology? (Augmented reality, which overlays VR on actual reality, is substantially different because it modifies rather than replaces your surroundings and is not directly considered here.)
To get some idea, we talked to a couple of interactive ad/marketing execs and asked: what is the essential value proposition from VR for marketers?
There are three intrinsic benefits, 3Q Digital’s Chief Marketing and Revenue Officer, Scott Rayden, told me: the deluge of data, the resulting hyper-personalization and the ability to tantalize a potential customer with a variety of real-enough product/service experiences.
The potential datapalooza could dwarf the number and kind of data points that marketers now acquire from web sites, mobile apps and other sources, he pointed out.
VR is “a platform where you can track every single detail of what someone is doing,” he said. “How they’re moving physically, what they’re looking at, what caught their eye.”
You could know, to take one small example, that a user “walked” past a virtual running gear store, went into a golf store and spent time with several specific golf clubs and balls. Then he hit the golf balls with his characteristic swing (assuming hand trackers, of course).
This would not only allow marketers to fulfill their unspoken dream of knowing every data point surrounding product and real-life experiences, but the data could generate an unprecedented ability to hyper-personalize future experiences according to your tendencies.
Which brings up the issue of verisimilitude. The validity of the data tracking in a simulated real world could be impacted by how real the world is. If you swing a golf club differently in VR, for instance, was it because that type of club acts differently from the real version?
Of course, VR can go beyond a photo or a video, which is “limited in its ability to invite someone into your products,” interactive marketing/advertising DXagency partner Ben Hordell pointed out.
But while the current and foreseeable generation of virtual reality is impressive, any near-term assessment for marketing needs to parse the different kinds of experiential marketing — and VR’s present ability to sufficiently replicate them.
Experiential marketing for VR, it would seem, is a continuum, ranging from experiences that fully satisfy to ones that do not. Learning how the continuum works may become essential for VR marketing.
At the “fully satisfied” end is what you might call the sufficiently accurate look-and-hear experience, like virtually attending an outdoor music concert.
VR can replicate most of what constitutes the experience — via high-definition video and audio, a sense of place and 3-D space and background visuals and sound details. And the details it cannot currently replicate — the feel of the grass on your toes, the smells or the cool breeze on your face — might not be enough to diminish your sense that you experienced the event.
Both Hordell and Rayden pointed to travel and real estate marketing as other opportunities for present-day VR to provide a preview of the real thing that is also sufficiently accurate.
The potential buyer can “stand and walk around” in a luxury hotel room in Hawaii, watch the sunset, hear the band playing behind her on the beach, and so on. Similarly, VR might be useful for real estate marketing, so that potential buyers can “walk around” photo-realistic homes for sale to get a feel.
But travel/real estate visits might be a bit farther away from simple look-and-hear experiences like a concert, in terms of whether they fully match the depicted experiences. You can’t feel yourself sitting on a bed, one of many sensations that might make travel and real estate VR experiences feel like they are not as fully realized experiences as VR music concerts.
You wouldn’t say you’ve “been” to Hawaii after a VR excusion, for instance, although you might have felt you’ve “been” to a VR-enabled music concert. Travel/real estate VR, then, would seem to satisfy the marketing goal of providing a preview, but not enough — for the foreseeable future — to provide a “Total Recall”-like virtual trip.
Similar to a travel/real estate preview, a virtual parachuting excursion would seem to satisfy some marketing needs without full replication.
In the near term, the VR version could give you enough of a rush, of a sense of falling and then floating amidst an endless vista of surrounding countryside, so that you could make up your mind about whether you want to buy a real parachuting adventure. It’s likely you’ll have a deeper experience than, say, a music concert, a travel preview or a real estate jaunt, because your body will probably react in some unexpected kinetic and emotional ways, even though you don’t feel the wind or the sun.
At the far end of the experiential continuum, where the VR marketed experience does a disservice to the brand: a test drive of a Porsche.
Any car lover should be aghast at the idea that VR in the foreseeable future can replicate the feeling of actually driving this finely-tuned machine on an open road.
While VR can replicate the feel of speed and motion, it cannot replicate the essential Porsche-nesses of the feel of the road, the wind or the inertia thrust from the powerful engine. Just as VR can describe the experience of eating ice cream, it cannot replicate the taste.
Pretending that foreseeable-future VR marketing can adequately represent a Porsche test drive — or a Ben & Jerry’s ice cream cone — could do damage to the brand.
Both executives agreed. Rayden, however, was more sanguine about how soon VR would evolve into a medium that encompasses most, if not all, of the senses, predicting that it might become convincingly complete within a decade.
Hordell noted that even limited experiential marketing — like the music concert or a car drive that is not trying to be a Porsche — can have value as “aspirational branding.”
A new kind of content marketing
You might not completely emulate a Porsche drive, he said, but the drive you do emulate could be associated with an adventurous, outdoorsy brand like National Geographic or Red Bull.
This kind of associative value is a new kind of content marketing. Like a video clip or an essay on the topic, it is content that is freely distributed to get you interested in the product or to attach a certain aura to the brand.
Hordell pointed out that when used as content marketing, this kind of VR is positioned at the top of the funnel, where potential customers are just beginning to consider your product.
A car web site, for instance, might create a VR-based car game to associate fun with their models. The marketing usefulness is not the verisimilitude of the experience that you’re actually driving in one of their cars. They just want to attract your attention.
But, he noted, the more developed the experiential marketing, the closer it might migrate to the bottom of the funnel. If the potential VR traveler to the resort in Hawaii felt like she was on vacation, for instance, she might have her credit card out as soon as she removes her headset.
Marketing with virtual reality differs from other kinds of digital marketing because it will go beyond depicting the product or service, like an ad for sneakers, and beyond a teaser, like a movie preview or a trial use of software.
It will let you use the product or service in the real world or any imagined world, turning this kind of digital marketing into a new way of managing expectations about your chosen reality.