Why Virtual Reality Isn’t Ready to Be a Marketing Platform (Yet)

VR marketing

by James Au

The Oculus Rift is finally coming to the commercial market early next year, Oculus VR just announced on its blog, which is likely to increase interest in virtual reality as a marketing platform. AdWeek helped fuel that excitement with a January cover title predicting that Oculus Rift “is about to reshape marketing creativity”, and we’re already seeing a big push by big brands to hastily launch a branded virtual reality experience of their own. “Companies want to throw money at it without understanding user experience and behavior,” as tMa CEO Vanessa Camones told me, reflecting on her interactions at a recent game industry conference.

As someone who’s actually worked in virtual reality marketing, during the last VR hype wave of 2006-2008, when Second Life was being touted as the coming of the 3D Internet, I’m deeply skeptical that virtual reality’s time as a marketing platform has come. Here’s at least three reasons:

Relatively Niche Install Base for at Least the Next Decade

It’s still far too early to judge whether there’s actually any mass market consumer interest in VR hardware and content. Despite little precedent to go on, a well-known analyst firm predicts the install base for VR will reach 83 million by 2018. That’s not nothing, but even assuming that forecast is accurate, this would only make VR as popular as a leading videogame console. (83m is also the install base of the Xbox 360.) But 83 million is still dwarfed in comparison to Facebook’s 1.2 billion users, or iOS’s one billion iPhone/iPad owners.

In the next few years, at any rate, early adopters of VR are likely to be hardcore gamers, who are typically hostile or indifferent to external marketing campaigns, especially when they'd rather just play a fully immersive game. A fraction of VR owners will certainly try out some branded VR content (especially if it’s free) but that just takes us to the next problem with virtual reality marketing:

Little Evidence that Virtual Experiences Influence Real World Purchasing Habits

If you experience a VR version of driving a car (as Volvo is doing), does it make you any more likely to buy an actual model? That doesn’t follow at all, and compelling case studies are scant. I helped launch or wrote about dozens of virtual reality marketing campaigns in Second Life, some of them quite clever, and I can summarize the ROI for nearly all of them: Nada. Second Life users, exploring the virtual world to play games, build, socialize, or (of course) have virtual sex, would suddenly find a real world brand intruding on their fun like a kind of 3d billboard. They’d enjoy the best campaigns, like a virtual gossip game promoting the Gossip Girls TV show, but then just move on to consuming other Second Life content. All we really knew for sure is that creating virtual marketing experiences increased interest in… more virtual reality experiences.  

Which brings us to a related point:

Limited Sensory Inputs Likely Leads to Limited Marketing Success

Most products engage all the senses, while Oculus Rift and the leading VR platforms can only simulate sight (usually integrated with 3D audio). There are any number of VR systems that can simulate touch and body movement to a limited degree, but not anything that will enable you to, say, feel as if your hands are gripped around the steering wheel, let alone smell the car’s rich interior. (Yes, there’s virtual reality smell masks, which The Verge notably described as “instruments of torture”.) Creating a VR experience that can even come close to simulating its real life analog requires cobbling together assorted VR hardware devices, which requires further development to ensure that they work together in tandem -- all in the dubious hope that the virtual experience will drive interest in a real purchase.

So it’s likely that most or all VR marketing campaigns will yield limited results (if not outright ridicule), which leads us to a final problem:

VR Marketing Failure Could Hurt VR Industry’s Overall Growth

After numerous Second Life-based marketing campaigns met with extremely low levels of engagement, the entire platform was largely written off by most people in tech, not to mention all the major organizations who wasted their money on that outreach. This failure was largely not the fault of Second Life, as I explained at length at the time. However, when esteemed companies conspicuously squander tens of millions of dollars on a platform, people tend to dismiss the platform as a whole. A similar scenario is likely to happen with this new generation of VR campaigns. And virtual reality, as Second Life was before it, will be in danger of being dismissed.

None of this means all virtual marketing campaigns are a bad idea -- just that marketers should consider them to be very experimental and desirable only when done on a low budget, and for now, targeted at VR’s existing niche of hardcore gamers and 3D graphics technophiles. And whatever they do, marketers shouldn’t mistake mass market coverage of VR with actual consumer interest in VR -- let alone the real brand they’re promoting. Which in the end, is all that really matters.

Image via Innovation Playground

Evolve or Die: Reassessing Your Personal / Business Brand

by Vanessa Camones

shingy aol tma

Remember "Shingy"? For awhile last year, everyone in tech seemed to be talking about David Shing, AOL's self-proclaimed "digital prophet" -- but for all the wrong reasons. As The Washington Post's Matt O'Brien put it in an article aptly titled "AOL’s ‘digital prophet’ is everything wrong with Corporate America today":

AOL is desperately trying to divine a future where it's something more than obsolete. And that's why they have David Shing... [who has] big hair, glammed-out fingernails, and repeats the word "brands" like he's a verbally incontinent MBA.

To be fair, Shingy has done some interesting work for AOL, like this interview with Kevin Spacey. But overall, the backlash he garnered illustrates how a personal brand can hurt a company brand -- and how a company can hurt itself by not strategizing and managing its brand carefully.

In any case, it’s well-past time to change the way people and companies build their brands. With Twitter and Facebook around 10 years old, brands can no longer grow awareness simply with an active online presence. Now that everyone is constantly promoting themselves on the major social networks, a new approach is desperately needed -- one that puts as much emphasis on accessibility and unmediated authenticity, as hashtags. Here’s some starting points we typically recommend, enforced by insights from two close colleagues who’ve mastered the challenge of building their own personal brands:

Refresh Your Brand by Diversifying Your Expertise and Interests

To stay at the forefront of the market, it’s crucial to show yourself knowledgeable beyond your particular expertise. This helps you dodge the danger of pigeon-holing yourself, while also growing audience awareness beyond your existing base. In the pop music world, Taylor Swift is a very good role model: Not simply satisfied with promoting her music and her concert appearances, she also talks a lot about feminism and protecting artists. This kind of engagement not only helps her connect even more deeply with her most dedicated fans, but grows her audience while establishing herself as a thought leader. (Notice how Swift’s opinions on music streaming monetization were widely quoted last year, even by tech sites.)

Amber Case, a colleague who made a name for herself through an influential TED talk about cyborg anthropology, later expanded her focus to talk about ambient location at SXSW, and has expanded yet again to focus on "calm technology" and connected devices. It's important, as she puts it to me, "to step back a little and see where things are going. If you get too close to everything that goes on, you can lose sight of what really matters over time."

Diversification shouldn’t just be expressed by social media updates, of course; strive to connect with leaders and influencers adjacent or complementary to your industry and brand category, and make a point to attend conferences and social events outside your usual comfort zone. Which takes me to my next point:

Emphasize In-Person Accessibility Whenever Possible

Ironically, the success of social media has only increased the value of in-person contact.

We’ve long since learned that there’s a certain wall in front of social media, and that public figures and brands create a personae through social media. Consequently, interactions with them feel mediated and filtered. So now authenticity becomes even more about face-to-face accessibility, and fostering one-to-one relationships.

“Social media isn't enough because it alone can't demonstrate you're a person,” as Ben Parr, author of Captivology, puts it. “Even Beyoncé goes shopping at Walmart once in a while. Events and in-person appearances matter. Mostly it's just about caring about your audience and being a human being, not necessarily 1-on-1 interaction.”

Tech evangelist and social media god Robert Scoble is an excellent case study here: He’s very accessible, very open about how he can be reached, open to meeting new people and hearing everyone’s point of view. And notably, he’s recently added another way to engage his followers beyond Twitter and Facebook: Through direct e-mailed newsletters.

This tip might not seem as relevant to company brands, but that can’t be more wrong. “A company is not one entity,” as Amber notes, “it is a collection of different people. Show those people! The brands that know themselves well enough to have character are the ones that are memorable.”

Always Be Updating - Judiciously

Or as Ben calls it, “CCC”: Create Content Consistently. That content can come in many forms, including personal appearances (as discussed), or be as brief as a Tweeted photo, but the key is to do so on a regular, reliable basis. “When you break schedule your awareness shrinks,” says Ben. “You have to always be doing something new, unique or better than what you did before. Nothing is sadder than a stagnant brand.“

At the same time, there’s nothing more annoying that a robotic one.

“I see a lot of consumer/tech brands talk down to their audience or tweet out press releases,” Amber observes. “People don't read press releases anymore, bots do. Include pictures and interact with people, don't just post information.” Or an aggressive one: “Think about it like the people in your life. Do you want twenty messages a day from someone you barely know?”

And both those final points suggest a good way of summarizing all this advice:

Be as strategic about your personal brand as you would be about a product -- and be as genuine about your company brand as you are as a person.

But that’s just the start to avoiding Shingy/AOL-level branding disasters. More to come in upcoming posts.

Vanessa Camones is founder and CEO of theMIX Agency, a full-service marketing and communications boutique based in San Francisco and Los Angeles.  

Fuse’s Anders Lassen on TechCrunch

Fuse co-founder and CEO Anders Lassen just published a new post on TechCrunch, “How Facebook’s React Native Will Change Mobile Apps”, arguing that the social network’s now-open sourced framework will help usher in a new era for mobile development, one that will help democratize app creation while also encouraging more creativity:

While allowing developers to write JavaScript, a very popular entry-level language that can run on all mobile devices, [React Native] displays the user interface using real native components. This is an attractive lifeline for JavaScript developers…

[N]ative app developers must spend minutes waiting for their tools to compile, deploy and launch on a mobile device. This isn’t just a time suck; it also kills the urge to be creative and experiment with new ideas… [React Native by contrast] can run anywhere, like in the browser of developers’ computers... Make a change, see the results instantly on the device or in an emulator; make apps faster, or spend extra time trying out new ideas.

Anders concludes by predicting that consumers can soon expect much better apps, even those created by small teams of indie developers. Sounds like we’re fast approaching an era when even more Internet content consumption will be done via native mobile. Read the full post here.


SEWORKS’ Minpyo Hong on VentureBeat

SEWORKS founder and CEO Minpyo Hong has a new guest post for VentureBeat, explaining what Apple and iOS need to learn from hacking history -- a topic Min knows extremely well from his many years as a top security consultant:

While it’s true that the vast majority of malicious hacks on mobile happen on Android, iOS apps are not as safe as their users like to believe. No doubt, Apple has done an impressive job keeping the App Store secure. However, reflecting on my last couple of decades in Internet security, I see some worrying trends. Similar vulnerabilities that plagued PCs and the web in the ’90s and 2000s are now appearing on mobile, and my concern is this new generation of mobile developers do not even remember them.

He goes on to argue that iOS developers are under an illusion that the iOS ecosystem is completely safe, missing the potential for human error inherent in the App Store review process, and the dangers to be found in jailbroken iOS devices. Min argues that Apple should address these issues now, concluding, "the company’s future — and, to a great extent, ours — depends on them doing that." Click here to read the rest.

theMIX's Vanessa Camones Analyzes Social Media Campaign Strategies on CIO Magazine

vanessa cio

Our CEO Vanessa Camones is quoted in two CIO Magazine features this week: 12 Standout Social Media Success Stories and 12 Shockingly Stupid Social Media Misfires. She notes how brands have leveraged social media in video and multi-platform campaigns to maximize click-throughs and overall engagement. On the flip side, Vanessa points to misfires that tend to squash engagement with customers and exacerbate antipathy toward the brand.

Check out a couple of the success story samples, below:

Vanessa on IKEA’s Bookbook video: "[It] showed us just how well trained we are to buy into the glossy look and feel of gadget features and functionalities depicted in Apple ads by demonstrating that a simple book is just as functional, if not more.”

Vanessa on the Mercedes-Benz Instagram/Facebook campaign: "What makes this campaign so successful, besides the double Instagram/Facebook branding that triggers click-throughs, is the whimsical and engaging nature of objects and composition of the images."

Read CIO’s Social Media Success Stories here and the Misfires here, and please consider sharing. We’d love your feedback in Comments here too.