Image courtesy of Sergey Galyonkin

The Experience of a Lifetime!

Virtual Reality and the Power of Experiential Marketing

No one can deny that the Internet revolutionized marketing, but these days it seems like the industry is in dire need of innovation. Ad-blockers are spreading like wildfire as consumers desperately try to avoid banal ads. Click-through rates have nosedived to the statistical equivalent of an accident. B2B marketing seems to be caught in a fad spiral as marketers rush from ebooks to webinars to infographics only to see their pieces drown in an ocean of copycat content.

The truth is, it doesn’t need to be this way. Although it frequently gets a bad rap, marketing is supposed to be about connecting consumers with products they want to buy. Good marketing forges a connection between the brand and the audience that is based on real and intangible benefits. All you have to do is look at the rabid fans of companies like Apple and Red Bull to see the power of marketing done right.

You don’t get lines like this with banner ads.

But the latest marketing trend might have the chance to reverse the decline. It has high user engagement and even higher retention. It builds connections with brands on a visceral level and has the potential to make advertising fun again. The best part is that the medium is only expected to grow as millions of new users begin using it daily over the next few years. I’m talking about virtual reality and the emerging field of experiential marketing.

Living the Product

Experiential marketing has been with us for a few years in the form of interactive display ads and pop-up events. You’ve seen them in Youtube videos from a display ad for a charity that allows you to cut a slice of bread with your credit card to the House of Vans, a traveling sports, art, and music installation. Red Bull is the undisputed king of experiential marketing with its annual Flugtag flying contest and the occasional dropping a guy from the stratosphere.

Including this because it never fails to blow me away.

This type of marketing does more than build brand awareness or promote an image. It’s supposed to create a unique memory in the mind of the viewer that forges an emotional connection with the brand. Rather than force a viewer to watch an ad or avoid clicking on a banner, people tend to willingly participate in experiential marketing campaigns making them doubly effective.

Virtual reality is perfect for this type of marketing. Researchers like Jeremy Bailenson have explored the unique power of virtual reality to create intense emotional responses. This is due to presence or the power of a virtual reality experience to convince our minds that the simulation is real. VR isn’t just another media to be consumed — it feels just like real life.

Marketers have already capitalized on the power of presence to create some pretty incredible experiential marketing campaigns. HBO had a traveling VR experience that would take you to the top of The Wall in Game of Thrones. Participants lined up for hours for a chance to see this mythical place come to life. Marriott has even built VR installations into many of its hotels allowing guests to experience the many other travel destinations Marriott has to offer in a form of virtual tourism.

But these experiential marketing installations are limited compared to the potential that VR brings to the table. They have to be set up in high traffic areas and rely on the novelty of VR to bring in users. Instead, with the growth in the number of VR headsets, marketers are realizing they can create experiential marketing campaigns that people can view at home.

Mercedes just released a 360 video allowing viewers to race around a mountain in their latest model. Boursin, a cheese supplier, created a virtual reality experience that takes you through a fridge of delectable goods. Ikea even created a Vive game that allows users to design their perfect house.

A new way for couples to fight over Ikea!

Marketers have finally found a way to make their ads fun again by making them experiences that people actually want to try. But the VR experiential marketing revolution is just beginning.

Immersive Advertising

So what does the VR ad of the future look like? In its simplest form, virtual games and experiences might include floating billboards and logos on virtual objects. Mediaspike has already been experimenting with these types of in-game advertisements designed to blend into the virtual environment and build brand awareness. But this type of ad just mimics the banner and display ads we already have. Experiential marketing in VR will maximize its immersive power in some pretty amazing — and potentially terrifying — ways.

In one of the early scenes from Snow Crash, the classic sci-fi novel, an “animercial” attacks Hiro, the protagonist, by crashing a virtual plane in front of him as an ad for a job at a virtual amusement park. While we certainly don’t want ads attacking us in VR, it demonstrates the power of a experiential advertisements. An ad for a vacation can put us at the beach sipping a cocktail. An insurance ad can show us the devastating effects of an accident. These ads will be totally immersive and lifelike in order to capture the consumer’s attention. These ads can and will be interactive, allowing consumers to be a part of the ad or even try products beforehand.

While this type of advertising will certainly be more engaging than the current fare on television or the Internet, VR also makes it far easier to manipulate consumer demand. In Infinite Reality, Jim Blascovich and Jeremy Bailenson explain the myriad ways that virtual reality can affect us subconsciously. Because our minds respond to virtual environments the same way we do to real ones and the virtual environment can be manipulated to fit any situation, marketers can perfectly design simulations to make products more desirable.

No, not like this.

A virtual salesperson could use delayed mimicry and subtle social cues in order to make a person more likely to buy their product. If ads are able to respond to facial and motion tracking software of consumers, they can update themselves in real-time to appeal to the consumer at any moment.

The potential for advertisers to influence our subconscious is only enhanced if they have access to our avatars. We tend to trust ourselves the most. Blascovich and Bailenson studied how seeing virtual doppelgangers do something made people more likely to replicate the action in real life.

Imagine a metaverse where every spokesperson is you. It would be hard to resist our own charms as we sell ourselves everything from clothes to appliances. The effect is even more powerful if we engage in the action ourselves. An advertisement that takes control of the motions of our avatar could be incredibly effective at changing consumer behavior.

Still, advertisers will probably try subtler ways to influence the subconscious through our avatars. They might give away free skins that show off their branding or allow people to use virtual versions of the product. By using these items in the virtual world, we will be more likely to buy their products in the real world. If my avatar has a Rolex watch and a Gucci handbag, why shouldn’t I?

Besides, you know, not having hundreds of dollars to blow.

As a consumer, this future of marketing might sound terrifying. But it also has the potential to be one of the biggest boons for the growth of virtual reality content due to an unlikely ally — data tracking.

As with the Internet, VR has the potential to collect vast amounts of data on us as consumers. Not only will companies track what we buy in VR, but also everything we do there. Companies can use this information to paint a complete picture of us as consumers and target ads directly to us.

Of course, this is not necessarily a bad thing. Aside from the fact that we often prefer targeted ads to general ones, targeted advertising has allowed vast parts of the Internet to remain free. If this trend holds in VR, we can expect a number of sponsored software, media and experiences that allow free access as long as we watch a few ads or accept company logos plastered across virtual objects.

I for one look forward to playing GTA VI: Miniontopia. Image courtesy of Mediaspike.

Allowing companies to track us within their programs will help subsidize their costs and allow services to remain free. As long as we remain vigilant against truly intrusive advertising and cross-service tracking abuses, advertising could lead to an explosion in free VR content.

What About B2B?

The issue with B2B marketing in VR is that it requires a lot more handholding. Businesses aren’t likely to be spending significant amounts of time consuming VR content unless it helps their bottom line. Instead, savvy B2B marketers will use VR as a new and improved information source.

We can already see this in the growth of VR architectural walkthroughs. Potential clients use VR as a way to view buildings before they’re even built. It’s a great way to share information about a product with customers that are far away or unable to see the product in person. This same type of experience can be used for everything from selling industrial equipment to informational presentations on the latest software.

This looks a lot more fun than a brochure.

But these type of experiences can be augmented by tapping into one of the most powerful aspects of virtual reality: the ability to talk to another person in a virtual space as if they were in the same room. This allows for face-to-face communication, arguably the most effective way to conduct business, with people around the world.

At Agora, we’re using the power of social VR to create the next iteration of the webinar — the Siminar, or a simulated virtual reality presentation. Like marketers use webinars today to inform potential customers about new product offerings or deliver content marketing presentations, the Siminar can be used in the same way. The biggest difference is the audience feels like it’s actually attending a real life seminar. They can ask questions and interact with the presenter. And as opposed to a boring 2D slide deck, the presenter can bring in a wealth of 3D visuals to hammer home their point.

Even a 3D hammer!

Social VR can also be used as a direct sales tool. Rather than relying on expensive site visits and sales calls, companies can send virtual reality headsets to potential clients and talk to them in a virtual space. The best part is that they can bring the product into the environment, blow it up to show component pieces, show exactly how the product fits into the customer’s workflow, and have experts on hand to answer questions. This can shortens sales cycles, lower sales costs, and ultimately increase sales.

Whether it’s for business or consumers, virtual reality will fundamentally change the way marketers connect with potential customers. It will make marketing materials more immersive, experiential, and powerful, ultimately leading to stronger connections between brands and consumers. It will be up to us as consumers, businesses, and developers to regulate the extent that these marketing experiences can manipulate us. But no matter the eventual outcome, marketing will have fully entered the virtual era.

Matthias McCoy-Thompson is a co-founder and COO of AgoraVR. We create tools for companies, organizations, and individuals to present and share their ideas in virtual reality.

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