More than a year ago, Samsung announced that it had shipped more than 1 million VR headset units. The future, we were told, was here. Consumer adoption was accelerating, and the nature of VR platforms would make it easier for brands to attribute purchasing decisions to specific pieces of content. Soon, all advertisers would all be living in the Minority Report of our wildest dreams.
But today, the promise of VR is still just that—a promise. And while that promise hasn’t yet been broken, it also hasn’t been fulfilled. It’s not yet clear that VR was another case of advertisers chasing after something shiny, but as a young market continues to find its footing, it seems safe to make a few broad claims about VR in advertising:
The wow factor is real.
There’s no other way to put it: VR experiences are cool, as Alexander Iñarritu showed with his groundbreaking Carne y Arena exhibition at Cannes this year. So far, the “wow” factor of VR ads is showing up in audience engagement metrics that are far, far above those of non-VR ads—it seems that people really are willing to spend more time with VR ads, presuming you can put those ads in front of them.
As Ben Gilbert at Business Insider pointed out more than a year ago, the marketing for the big VR platforms is cookie-cutter in part because the product experience is so extraordinary. Simply show a person wearing the product, make sure the person’s mouth is agape with slack-jawed wonder, and let the audience’s imagination do the heavy lifting. It’s a simple and broad strategy, but when it’s executed properly, the final product can win hearts, minds, and awards.
The difficulty of getting in front of people is also real.
While consumers are willing to spend time with VR experiences, putting a VR experience in front of consumers’ eyeballs remains a serious challenge, and one that’s unlikely to change until one of the platforms gains market dominance. With proprietary development considerations and siloed platforms, it is nearly impossible for brands and advertisers to create VR experiences for more than one platform at a time. So some of the most successful VR experiences are happening when the advertiser gives the consumer the hardware along with the creative—like IKEA did with its interactive VR showroom.
The phone is the gateway.
Last year, Oculus Rift shipped only 200,000 VR headsets globally. By contrast, Samsung moved more than 4 million of its Gear VR units, and it’s not hard to see why: Samsung’s kit costs only $45 (the cheapest Oculus rig is nine times more expensive) and uses the consumer’s phone as its screen. There are major drawbacks to this approach, not the least of which is the “VR sickness” associated with heavy loads on cell phone batteries and CPUs that weren’t designed for these kinds of immersive experiences. But consumers have made it clear that they are not interested in taking a risk on a new, expensive piece of technology that doesn’t seem to play nicely with other parts of their lives. For the VR platforms, then, the only strategy is to hope that there are enough avid gamers out there to spur early adoption, support content creation, and drive development costs down—and hope isn’t much of a strategy at all.
All of this leads us to a few important lessons for marketers who want to use VR:
Show, don't tell.
VR was sold as something that could free consumers’ imaginations, but in practice, it has succeeded by doing the opposite. Both Marriott and Wyndham Hotels made VR useful and accessible to consumers with apps that allow consumers to move around in the brands’ luxury hotels and resorts—a sort of The Sims for your real life. It’s low-concept, and it probably won’t win any Cannes Lions, but it’s the kind of thing that’s legitimately useful for consumers at all stages of the sales funnel. No more guessing about what the view from your hotel room will look like!
Make it easy.
With adaptation lagging and the platform wars still to come, smart brands are getting around the technology hurdles in unexpected ways. That’s what McDonald’s Sweden did when it turned its iconic Happy Meal box into a Google Cardboard display. Because while VR might not be here yet, the consumers of tomorrow already are.