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