At a recent technology conference in Las Vegas, one of the large exhibitors dedicated an entire section of its booth to a virtual reality (VR) experience for customers. Excited attendees sat in orange-colored pods, donned headsets and watched an action movie in immersive 3-D. Watching the expressions on their faces, it was clear that they were enjoying themselves immensely.
Immediately after their experiences, the participants were interviewed by the show organizers and asked two very simple questions:
1. Did you have fun?
2. What was the immersive experience about?
The answers were almost always “Yes!” to the first question, and the answers to the second question included, “A pirate ship experience; I had to walk the plank!” and, “A roller-coaster ride; I felt like I was actually on the roller coaster.” The next day, a research firm was commissioned to ask these participants a third question. Finding them was relatively easy since they each had the tell-tale orange sticker on their badge indicating they had participated. This was the third question:
3. Which company/booth hosted the VR experience?
Only 21% of the participants remembered which company sponsored their VR experience from the previous day. What this means is that VR was used as a prop or a gimmick to get people in the booth, but it had little or no effect on brand association (not to mention propensity to buy). Rather than infer from these results that VR is, therefore, not useful in the sales or marketing process, we should think more strategically.
While this is a common use case for VR today, it will not be this way forever. The effective use of immersive experiences in sales and marketing requires three key ingredients in order to succeed in influencing prospects or customers:
1. It requires a level of interaction. Rather than simply showing a 360-degree video, immersive sales and marketing experiences need to include the user as a participant in the process so that they are doing something (selecting items, opening doors or moving around in the space, for example).
2. The experience should make an emotional connection.Studies have shown that every buying decision consists of two components: a logical or analytical process, and an emotional aspect. Building an emotional connection to the specific product, solution or company is essential in moving customers along in their decision process.
3. There must be some intellectual knowledge transfer. The customer should learn something useful that's related to how the company or product can solve a problem for them or meet a particular need.
Lowes is a great example of a company that successfully implemented the use of VR for sales and marketing. With Lowe’s Holoroom, a customer can put on a VR headset (the Oculus Rift) and then select paint colors for their room, pick which lighting fixtures they want, and can even move objects around in the space. This is successful because it addresses all three key ingredients: It is interactive (the user selects colors and fixtures and moves things around), it creates emotion (it’s really powerful to see the walls change colors and the way a lamp looks in a different corner of the room) and it provides useful information (the customer feels better about their selections and is more likely to buy the specific paint and lighting that they select).
These three pillars of immersive engagement are true for both B2C and B2B sales and marketing. In one B2B sales example of a VR application my company built, we were able to provide a VR experience to hospital laboratory directors so that they could lay out their labs, select the appropriate equipment, and see how it would look when configured together. The lab director was able to take a fully immersive virtual tour of the newly configured lab and made informed decisions about the workflow, the specific equipment to buy and how their staff was able to navigate the physical environment. This VR experience saves time and money since the customer is iterating in the digital world -- rather than moving delicate and expensive physical equipment around -- and they make better buying decisions.
While it is not yet practical to deliver VR sales and marketing experiences to every customer venue or touch point (since the equipment is rather bulky and not readily accessible in every location), technology is evolving quickly. Soon it will be possible to deliver high-quality VR sales and marketing experiences on smartphones with lightweight wireless goggles. Easy access to these platforms actually makes it more imperative for marketers to deliver meaningful and effective VR experiences, since customers’ expectations will elevate as the technology evolves.
Even though we are in the early stages of the implementation of VR for sales and marketing, it is clear that this form of technology is here to stay and will become even more powerful as a platform for engaging customers. Success, however, will depend on delivering interactive, emotional and useful experiences.