VR for Social Impact: The Results Are In

Here’s What You Need to Know Now

You’ve heard the hype. Virtual reality can teleport viewers from first world comforts to the heart of your cause with jaw-dropping realism, while eliciting unprecedented empathy levels. If your charity, foundation, NGO, or mission-driven brand hasn’t already considered integrating a VR experience to support your next campaign, now is the time to start. Read on for FAQ and insights to help you get the best ROI and avoid common mistakes.

Realistically, how much will a VR experience move the needle for my campaign?

Quality and distribution are the key factors that determine impact. Charity:Water had the biggest success when a philanthropist reportedly raised his contribution from $60,000 to $400,000 after experiencing their VR piece. UNICEF credits their VR experience for doubling projected donations for their Syrian refugee fundraising campaign. And Amnesty International saw an unexpectedly big spike in donations with a 16% increase in long-term giving for their VR campaign. Other social impact VR experiences are reporting views and downloads in the low millions.

Isn’t VR mostly popular with gamers and teenage boys?

Not anymore. VR just passed the early adoption stage. With the new higher quality & competitively-priced headsets hitting the market this fall, VR headsets will soon be as ubiquitous as laptops. The most widespread platform is mobile, which makes experiencing VR as easy as popping your smartphone into the compatible headset.

How much does a VR experience cost to make?

“You get what you pay for” holds fast and true in VR production. Approach the budget as if it’s for a TV commercial. Stay in the low end of the budget and you’ll get the VR equivalent of a late-night infomercial. Spend in the high end and you’ll have something super bowl worthy. The complexity of special effects, length of project, and type of shoot, are all factors that have bearing on the budget.

(For reference, the least expensive project my studio produced was $80k for a 90-second spot. And the most expensive was $400,000 for a 7-minute piece that featured every possible bell and whistle).

A quality VR experience requires a union crew to light and capture scenes with state-of-the-art, highly specialized equipment. A completely separate post-production team then stitches the raw data, sound mixes, color corrects, adds special effects, and 3D elements. After that, high-end programmers put it all together and build it into an app. Then there are costs associated with music royalties, shooting permits, writers, directors, digital imaging technicians, casting, talent, and specialized film production insurance, which rarely come cheaply.

Budget for upgrades.

While it’s easy to think of them as digital films, VR experiences are essentially apps that are closely related to interactive video games. And like all apps, they need to be hosted on a reliable server and updated with every new operating system upgrade. These costs may or may not be included in your bid….be sure to ask up front.

Whom do I call to get a VR experience made?

Despite the increasingly number of novice VR creators armed with a GoPro rig and a ton of enthusiasm for this exploding medium, I highly advise going with an established, specialized studio. At your first meeting, get clear on what you’d like to accomplish with your VR experience and make sure expertise, aesthetic & vision are aligned in order to avoid costly retakes.

Cautionary tale:

My studio subcontracted the SFX & programming out to a team of known and respected developers. When it was time to see the rough cut, they were unexpectedly unreachable…because they took our money and ran. The VR experience was unfinished, they disappeared with our data, and now my studio is engaged in a very expensive lawsuit on behalf of our charity client.

I do know that the overwhelming majority of VR studios are honest and very professional. As with any project that has many moving parts, be liberal with your expectations, know that it’ll probably go over budget and likely take longer than was projected.

However, in the end you’ll have the most powerful storytelling technology ever created, telling your story to a vast audience that is hungry for this sort of content.

With the power of virtual reality, you’re not just speaking to your audience….you’re taking them there.


Gentry Lane is the CEO & founder of TDO Productions, a full service VR content studio for the social impact sector and proud member of Carol Cone’s Purpose Collaborative.