“I want to live in there,” squealed a friend’s 7-year-old daughter. She had just taken a virtual swim with sharks through Google Cardboard. But, alas, kids bore quickly. Even in shark-infested waters.
With “VR … revenue … forecasted to reach $4.6B in 2017”, according to Marketo’s “Virtual Reality is Now a Marketing Reality,” marketers are again taking notice of a technology first hyped in the 1990s. Back then, the vision for VR was as big as it is today, but the technology wasn’t mature enough.
In recent years, VR has become more accessible. At the same time, marketers have placed a budgetary premium on the “customer experience.” This confluence has made VR a safe bet for marketing innovation and experimentation. And brands have made quite the splash:
- Coca Colaliterally launched VR fireworks when it took families on a virtual ride on Santa’s sleigh.
- Lowes used VR to give Millennials the confidence they need to take on home improvement projects.
- Tom’s takes retail customers on a virtual “giving trip,” where users experience how the shoemaker benefits children in need.
- Lockheed Martin turned a school bus into a Mars rover.
- And HBO helped viewers “ascend the wall” in the Game of Thrones opening sequence.
For many brands, though, the development and execution of a VR experience is just too great to take on. Consequently, VR’s tacit promise to make the customer experience great again, in many cases, falls flat.
As with most “new” technologies, brands should obsess less on the newness and instead weigh the pros and cons, and approach VR with a clear purpose. Here’s what I believe are some of the technology’s pros and cons:
CONS of Virtual Reality
- Cost. The content experience is typically custom built, and can be expensive.
- Tough to Scale. For the best experience, users have to wear the goofy headset or assemble their phone into a clunky contraption AND download an app.
- Data Standards. None exist yet.
PROS of Virtual Reality
- Content scarcity is an opportunity to differentiate, and also, contemporize your brand. Low-cost entry points do exist, such as Google Cardboard.
- Brands can transform the ordinary (retail stores, tradeshows, and conference rooms) into immersive experiences.
- VR forces marketers to think singularly about the customer experience.
Some thought leaders think VR is being oversold (again) before it’s ready for prime time. Even after one experiences dozens of the best “immersive” VR examples, the novelty quickly wears off unless it’s well produced.
Pittsburgh’s Carnegie Museum has one of the better experiences going, with its "Styles and Customs of the 2020s exhibit." Users don VR headsets in a controlled environment to experience the end of the world.
Back in the real world, the customer is in control, where everything is harder. So it’s not a surprise the usual suspects are leading VR innovation — entertainment groups and technology companies. But even big-time gamemakers like EA, whose very future may hinge on VR, are watching the market until it reaches critical mass.
So, is VR a realistic way to connect your brand to improve the customer experience? I think so. But much like mobility, there won’t be a single tipping point or “year of VR.” The technology is evolving rapidly, and by all accounts, will hit mainstream. Eventually, markets will adjust, and marketers will adapt. Those who start early and think strategically will earn an advantage.