4 Virtual Reality Rules for Brands

Will virtual reality replace TV in 10 years? Will headsets make iPhones obsolete? Will all brands have to make all their content VR to stay relevant? VR is still in its infancy, which means the hyperbolic questions and predictions are here. But here’s the reality: It’s too early to tell.

But the lack of certainty doesn’t mean that marketers can ignore VR. To do so would be akin to a legacy print newspaper that ignored the growth of the Internet.

No matter how much or little you know about VR, it’s crucial to stay informed on the latest news. At the least, you’ll want to be in a place to make an educated decision about whether this new medium is something worth exploring in the next few years.

To get you started, here are a few basics when it comes to VR and brands.

1. There’s a right and a wrong way to tell a VR story

Before your brand gets a shiny new toy, it’s critical that you have a thorough understanding of VR’s storytelling capabilities.

Many brands who have already dipped their toes in the water have treated VR like any other type of branded content—as a way to make their product look great. A major hotel chain debuted an experience that was exactly what you’d expect: Look at this 360-degree view of the lobby! Get a drink at the bar! Check out our sofas!

The problem is that no one really wants to look at the decor in a hotel lobby unless they have to. Those activities embody the mundane things we want to avoid on a trip, not the ways we want to spend time in a medium that has the ability to transport us to other planets.

The point of VR is that it creates an alternate reality, offering an interactive experience that most people can’t get. It’s a free pass to be as creative and ambitious as you want. You could transport viewers to a medieval Scottish village or a fictional colony on Mars. What you shouldn’t do is put them inside a station wagon. In the case of that hotel chain, they learned what people liked and disliked, and have since focused on experiences that take you to faraway lands.

Your brand story in VR isn’t necessarily your product. You may not need to build medieval villages, but chances are that a tour of your factory won’t cut it.

2. The audience is limited—for now

Ask anyone who has actually produced VR content about the process, and you’ll be sure to get an earful. You have to think about everything from the complexity of storyboarding to rendering animation to editing—all before you even get to distribution.

The arrival of Oculus, Vive, and Gear on the market means that audiences may be able to experience VR in their homes, but right now that audience is extremely limited due to high costs. The HTC Vive, for example, runs for $800, assuming you have a high-end PC to run it.

The cheaper options like Google Cardboard are available, but they pale in comparison to their full-fledged big brothers. Plus, not many people have them yet. Brands have had to send out free Google Cardboards, like The New York Times did late last year, or get creative with promotional deals like Coke and McDonald’s did earlier this year.

In other words, because the technology is so new, your content will have a limited reach once you publish it. The target audience won’t be the billions of people who visit Facebook or Youtube—at least, not yet.

3. The costs will continue to be expensive

This one may be obvious to some, but producing VR content probably won’t get much cheaper anytime soon.

But there’s good news: Not every VR project comes with a six- or seven-figure price tag. Some of the simpler VR experiences, like exploring underwater, can be done for five figures.

If you’re a smaller brand, you may not want to blow the whole budget on a VR experience just to make a splash. Think strategically about your desired audience and whether they’ll be attracted to this new technology in the first place. Not everyone is up for VR, no matter the novelty appeal.

4. Study what’s already out there

One of the best ways to learn is from others’ mistakes and successes. Publishers like The New York Times and brands like North Face are jumping on the VR bandwagon to see how audiences react.

While there aren’t any established engagement metrics for VR, we can still judge whether these efforts are effective through audience feedback. One recurring complaint is that VR can be a literal headache; people report motion sickness. Some claim to be frustrated because they don’t know where to look or who to talk to inside the experience. There may not be quick or easy fixes to these complaints, but it’s better to be aware of them before launching your VR project.

Another lesson to keep in mind is that just as audiences have no tolerance for poor web design or slow video downloads, they also don’t take kindly to faulty headsets or constant crashes in a VR experience.

We may be on the cusp of another massive wave of media innovation. We can either bury our heads in the sand or start experimenting and see where it goes. For marketers, the latter option will put you in a far better position once virtual reality becomes more of a reality.

Image by Artur Debat

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