The Real Marketing Opportunity of Virtual Reality

Afkar Barakeh, Jun 21 2017

Twenty-eight years ago, an English computer scientist named Tim Berners-Lee at the European Organization for Nuclear Research (known as CERN) created the first proposal for the World Wide Web. His invention changed humanity forever and created a new virtual world within a single generation.

While the Web was not an overnight success, in just a few years, it did impact millions of people worldwide. Most of us have become totally dependent on the flow of information that the web delivers. People are now able to instantaneously access information and share things in a way not possible to previous generations, which has ultimately contributed to one of the most prosperous periods of economic growth in history.

Today, the advent of Virtual Reality (VR) holds a similar promise to become one of the top breakthrough technologies of the next decade. While still new, VR is rapidly emerging as a go-to tool for marketing. Businesses are racing to leverage the technology to develop their own immersive experiences.

The Dawn of Virtual Reality
According to the International Data Corporation (IDC), the popularity of VR platforms has increased dramatically over the last few years and the number of active VR users is anticipated to reach 171 million by 2018. The adoption of these technologies has grown rapidly as organizations today are experiencing a digital transformation on a massive scale. IDC predicts that the trend will accelerate at a very fast rate over the next four years, changing the way businesses operate and reshaping the global economy.

Using specific hardware and software technologies, VR can replicate or even create an entirely simulated environment. Unlike conventional user interfaces, VR immerses users in computer-generated experiences by simulating as many realistic sensory experiences as possible. To better explain this, imagine being able to walk around your local supermarket through a virtual showroom in your own bedroom and to use hand controllers in order to add items to a virtual shopping cart, or being able to browse virtual product shelves at a store. The possibilities are endless.

What Does That Mean for Marketers?
Elias Aboujaoude, a Stanford University professor, explains that VR is a natural next step in the digital experience. Its capabilities far exceed that of any previous technology. He describes VR as ‘The Internet on Steroids’, because this new platform is more powerful than anything the world has witnessed before. VR is far more convincing and engrossing, he explains.

For marketers, VR’s immersive nature means rethinking many of their campaigns to both retain existing customers and attract new ones. As VR technologies continue to evolve, consumers will grow accustomed to virtual brand experiences, requiring companies to create initiatives that are even more interactive.

A Focus on Storytelling
Storytelling has been gaining popularity in today’s competitive marketing scene for some time now, especially since the advent of social media and other interactive platforms. Storytelling is a powerful approach that can help businesses connect with customers in a way that traditional marketing cannot. Stories communicate messages that customers can relate to and are therefore more likely to remember.

With virtual reality, businesses have the opportunity to engage customers in ways that were not previously imaginable. VR allows businesses to tell their stories through interactive visuals that delve into their individuality and unique identity. VR can, for example, bring customers into a company’s offices and help them learn more about different teams and their functions, what day-to-day operations look like, and explore the workspace itself. Customers are better able to build personal relationships where they engage with businesses and organizations.

Creating Extraordinary Experiences
Not everyone can achieve the most outstanding physical and sensory experiences like climbing Mount Everest or kayaking down the Colorado River. But virtual reality can make the sensations of these experiences attainable from the comfort of your own home. NASA is even working on developing software to simulate the experiences of outer space and walking on the moon or Mars.

If these out-of-this-world experiences can be replicated and democratized, the marketing possibilities for brands are endless. Sports teams can sell their fans the chance to play interactive games with their teams’ best players, while fashion retailers could sell aspiring designers the chance to get on the design floor with their favorite creations during the most important fashion shows on the calendar.  The adoption of virtual reality technologies holds huge promise for marketers in key industries.

Virtual Product Demonstrations
Beyond selling experiences, firms can also provide their customers with previews of their products through virtual reality before they actually buy them. People who hesitate to spend large sums on products might be persuaded once they experience them virtually. An expensive couch or dining table can be programmed into a potential customer’s house so they can see how it would fit before going through the purchase and installation, thus avoiding expensive returns.

This would be even more valuable for purchases such as cars or houses, saving clients and salesmen from extensive and expensive trips and demonstrations. People no longer have to travel to different showrooms and areas in search of the right car for a test drive; they can all be downloaded to their virtual reality headset and experienced in their own living rooms.

This technology could lead to a complete reformulation of the relationship between brands and consumers. As virtual reality is still in its early experimental stages, with its applications mostly restricted to gaming, marketers have only scratched the surface of what it can accomplish. Early indications are that its applications are, well, virtually limitless.

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