Why and how virtual reality will transform marketing

See how companies such as Toms, Sephora, Ikea, Facebook and YouTube are using immersive technologies to win over fans and consumers.

The term “virtual reality” probably conjures images of immersive video games with spectacular vistas and vibrant flora and fauna.

Virtual reality (VR) isn’t just about pure entertainment, however. VR has enjoyed spectacular growth. In a few short years, its market has expanded rapidly. Large tech companies have been pumping money into VR, and marketers would be wise to prepare accordingly.

Facebook has purportedly poured billions into its proprietary VR tech and social VR applications in hopes of revolutionizing how people interact online. Sony has invested millions into its VR hardware, PSVR, and reaped a profit that has well exceeded initial expectations.

The proliferation of VR could upend traditional notions of communication, marketing and messaging. Social media platforms could be in for profound transformation, too. Marketers increasingly will assimilate this new form of communication into their campaigns. We’re not quite there yet, but the tech is becoming more affordable, and adoption is starting to increase.

Immense storytelling potential

The storytelling potential of virtual reality is boundless. Viewers with VR headsets can watch live events, enjoy outdoor concerts or explore exotic locales. As Chris Milk, CEO of the virtual reality company Within, puts it: “Virtual reality is the ‘ultimate empathy machine.’ These experiences are more than documentaries. They’re opportunities to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.”

Speaking of shoes, Toms sends potential donors on a “virtual giving trip” to experience the joy of providing footwear for kids in need. Nonprofits, especially, could benefit from transportive tech that shows charitable projects in action.

The New York Times is using VR to convey complex and nuanced long-form journalistic stories. Instead of simply reading about refugees in Syria, viewers can transport themselves to refugee camps. VR can bring stories to life in visceral, deeply emotional ways. It’s the next frontier in “show, don’t tell.”

YouTube has launched a VR platform. Vloggers with 360-degree cameras can create stunning VR content, and viewers just need an inexpensive cardboard VR headset to dive in.

Augmenting your campaigns

Augmented reality (AR), which is also exploding in popularity, has an even lower barrier to entry. All you need to join in on the AR fun is a smartphone. With a smartphone, you can play AR-based games such as Pokémon Go. As with virtual reality, however, AR is about much more than fun and games.

Ikea’s AR app conjures pieces of furniture, so potential customers can see how an Ikea piece would look in their home before venturing to a store. Sephora enables users to superimpose makeup looks with its in-house AR app.

The North Face, meanwhile, is using virtual reality in stores to “forge an emotional connection with customers.”

Immersive technologies might not wipe out other forms of content marketing, but they’re certainly becoming a storytelling force to reckon with. Savvy marketers should create space in the budget to at least tinker with VR and AR, which are quickly becoming more accessible and affordable—and more in demand.

Ellie Martin is co-founder of Startup Change group. You can read more of her work here.

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