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Elizabeth Spiers Reveals Why You’re Thinking About VR and Branded Content All Wrong

For tech luminary Elon Musk, there’s little doubt that we are living a simulated reality. In fact, at this year’s Code Conference, he said there’s about a “one in a billion” chance of us not living in a simulation. He’s not alone in thinking so.

Elizabeth Spiers, a veteran of the publishing world and the founding editor of Gawker, announced a new venture on July 1 that will work inside—and report on—this increasingly muddled boundary between the real and the virtual. Named The Insurrection, her firm will conduct research for clients and is developing gaze-tracking analytics tools for the virtual reality (VR) industry. Unsurprisingly, given Spiers’s background, The Insurrection will also publish a digital magazine about virtual reality: There Is Only R.

The publication’s name is a nod to Musk’s theory that we are already living a virtual reality: Since we can’t distinguish the virtual from the real, there is “only R,” or reality.

Part of Medium’s beta platform for publishers, There Is Only R is meant to cover the growing VR community for both industry insiders and the merely curious. Pieces range from light-hearted listicles (“A List of Emerging VR Sub-Genres“) to in-depth opinion columns (“How Virtual Reality Will Democratize Learning“).

Besides launching Gawker under Nick Denton in 2002, Spiers was also the founder of Breaking Media, a digital media company that included the titles Dealbreaker, a Wall Street tabloid; Above the Law, a legal tabloid; and Fashionista, a fashion tabloid. Most recently, she worked closely with mattress startup Casper on the brand’s digital publication, Van Winkle’s. There Is Only R is branded content, too, although for Spiers’s own company.

We recently caught up with Spiers at her new offices in New York to talk about her new publication, what makes good branded content, and when she thinks we’ll see widespread adoption of VR.

What was the motivation behind There Is Only R?

Before we started The Insurrection, I worked mostly in traditional and digital media. I worked recently in branded content for Van Winkle’s for Casper.

What was the last display ad campaign you loved? Nobody can answer that question, because [an answer] just doesn’t exist.

You can do branded content well, but most people don’t. They don’t have very high standards for it. If you do it well, it can be an incredibly cost-effective marketing tool—way more so than display ads and traditional ads. There was no way we weren’t going to do a content thing for our business.

What was behind the decision to use Medium as your publishing platform? What are the benefits?

I have worked on and off with Medium. I wrote a feature for Matter [a digital magazine] about utilizing Medium for publishers. I’m interested in any medium that would make publishing easier.

I’m not in the publishing business anymore per se, but I’m still interested in what new models there are and how to monetize. From a user perspective, the platform has great design. It’s great for longform. It’s very clean.

What makes branded content work? When does it work well, and when does it not?

The biggest thing brands do is try to compare a branded content effort to the quality of a display ad campaign. They’re just apples and oranges.

What was the last display ad campaign you loved? Nobody can answer that question, because [an answer] just doesn’t exist. It’s a low bar. Display ads are a minute of impression, and the best-case scenario is like, “Oh, that’s funny.” By the nature of the way they’re constructed, they’re not really going to engage anybody.

We are not competing with Bloomberg. We are competing with Spider Man Reviews Crayons.

So what does branded content have to compete with? It has to compete with anything that you can read, watch, or pay attention to during that same time period. If it’s not compelling enough, people just aren’t going to pay attention.

When I was at Breaking Media, I was editing Dealbreaker, which was supposed to be a hybrid trade publication and gossip site for Wall Street people. We would get a lot of tips from junior analysts working at banks. One day we got the same tip from four or five analysts: Spider Man Reviews Crayons.

At the edit meeting, I showed my staff that we are not competing with Bloomberg. We are competing with Spider Man Reviews Crayons. If five bankers are sending me this as a tip, we have to make something at least as compelling as this. It has to be entertaining and something that people would share with their friends.

You have written about Casper and their publication Van Winkle’s as an example of great branded content. What did they get right?

It wasn’t meant to directly sell mattresses, but to establish authority in the area of sleep. If that’s what you want to do, you have to produce content that feels academically credible, that people actually want to read.

There are really exciting things happening in VR that are far beyond the low-end stuff like 360-degree video or Pokémon Go.

One of the writers we hired was predominantly a science writer with a feel for pop culture. If they get cited on science sites, that’s a win, [and] if readers are sharing content because it’s interesting, then that’s great as well.

Let’s talk about VR. Where do you see it headed, and when will we see mass consumer adoption?

Mass adoption will happen faster than you think. There are really exciting things happening in VR that are far beyond the low-end stuff like 360-degree video or Pokémon Go. Those are gateways into more complex AR [augmented reality] and VR. Everybody has lost their damn minds over Pokémon Go, and we will see a whole host of AR games in the next few months.

You just don’t see people conjuring these dystopian fantasies that VR will be the end of civilization.

Right now, there’s a wait for wider hardware adoption. In the VR community, people tend to gravitate to Oculus or [HTC] Vive. But there’s this funny competition thing right now to get people used to the technology. For example, if you buy a Samsung Galaxy phone, [some] get a VR headset for free. The catch is that you have to really do the experience to understand the appeal.

Google did a great video for [the HTC Vive game] Tilt Brush. You get a sense from the video what the experience is kind of like. It’s not as cool obviously as being in it, but it’s enough to intrigue people. There are things like asymmetric gaming that will be huge for VR. When people look at that market, they think that, basically, if you have a full Vive setup and you’re playing and other people are watching you, that will make others go out and buy it too.

China is moving very fast in VR, as well. There are a lot of mid-market head-mounted displays coming out of China. I also think that market doesn’t have the same trepidation as the American market does about what the cultural implications of VR are. You just don’t see people conjuring these dystopian fantasies that VR will be the end of civilization.

What happened to Google Glass? Were they ahead of the game?

Google Glass is interesting. It’s not like it shut down. I think they’re finding business clients now. Somebody told me a while back that there are first responders buying Google Glass in California so that they can transmit what’s happening directly to the EMT and the doctors could know what was happening before patients came in.

It strikes me as a good, reasonable choice. But historically that’s what Microsoft’s market strategy has been: finding an enterprise use for it and figuring out consumer stuff later.

Do you think adoption is just a case of the mass consumer becoming comfortable with the technology? From my understanding, the underlying technology has existed for decades.

Virtual Boy was a VR headset that Nintendo put out in the mid-1990s. It was an abysmal failure, mostly because people got nauseated in like five seconds—the computing power just wasn’t there. It had this really slow frame-speed, which is probably the number one reason people get nauseated.

The people who did Virtual Boy, I don’t think they were off-point about what the possibilities were and what you could do with it. It was just impossible to execute at the time because the technology just wasn’t there. And now it pretty much is, and it’s really going to be there in two or three years.

You see a lot of Hollywood studios pouring money into VR, but there does seem to be some hesitation on the part of conventional content creators to make VR products. I think they’re sitting around waiting for it to get wider adoption.

So when do you think we will see mass consumer adoption?

It depends on what exactly you’re talking about. I think for immersive VR, that’ll be standard gaming technology in probably three years.

In terms of people using it for non-gaming applications, you’ll see it here and there. There are health care companies right now using VR for pain management. I think when people get used to the idea that it’s not scary gamer tech, you’ll see wider adoption.

This interview has been edited for clarity.

Image by felixmizioznikov/Getty Images
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