The Mistake Brands Can’t Afford to Make with Virtual Reality
Take the time necessary to hammer out a winning VR strategy.
Virtual reality has been widely hailed as the breakthrough technology of 2016 — and for good reason, not least of all because The New York Times has just grabbed two Grand Prix awards at the Cannes Lions festival for its VR film about the lives of three refugee children. VR products are estimated to generate several billion dollars this year, and the technology is increasingly exhilarating and sobering even those users who are not usually easily impressed.
This has put pressure on brands to rush out VR experiences without first taking the time to deepen their understanding of the technology, what can be accomplished with it and how and, most importantly, why they would engage with it. The good news is that while technologists continue to improve on the technology and consumers get familiar with VR, there is still plenty of time to hammer out a winning VR strategy. (Can’t imagine a day when VR headsets become the norm? Remember how not so long ago we were quite happy with mobile phones that just did phoning.)
I have come to see that VR journalism will allow publications like The Economist to deepen engagement with readers by taking things that are very flat and bringing their imaginations to life. The key is to start with the content first, not the technology. Don’t create a VR experience just because it’s new and exciting. Understand how it fits in with an editorial program.
Tying into our coverage of beleaguered Iraqi city Mosul, we released our first VR experience last year, partnering with nonprofit Rekrei to create 3D representations of statues and artifacts in the Mosul Museum that were destroyed by the Islamic State. Because VR technology is still so new, our approach to this campaign was to use it not only as a way to put our users inside the destroyed Mosul Museum but also as a vehicle to introduce them to the VR experience itself.
Last year The New York Times Magazine released a VR experience called “Walking New York,” which provided an ingeniously simple opportunity for people from all over the world to stroll through the city. It’s easy to see why VR works brilliantly for travel companies and tourist boards. What I’m afraid of is that we will become couch potatoes who say, ‘Well, I’ve done New York,’ without ever leaving our sitting rooms. We will have to remain aware of using this technology well and wisely — as an accomplice to real-life experience, not a substitute for it.
Another outstanding question publications and other brands are working out an answer for is how to monetize VR experiences, which are very expensive to produce. Do you charge people to download the app? Get sponsors to sponsor the content? Both? Another question: How best to distribute the content? Most publications already have their answer to this last question, as they have a built-in distribution platform (huge readerships, newsletter recipients and social audiences), not to mention plenty of worthwhile topics in mind to help fill the VR content deficit.
There’s also an opportunity for publishers to create content and partner with tech companies looking to supply consumers with pre-loaded headsets. Just last week Samsung announced its content creation initiative in the form of a VR short videos contest, offering winners cash and an invitation to master classes at its new VR labs.
In particular, I’m seeing the promise of VR to complement an organization’s social good efforts. Already the United Nations has plunged viewers into a Syrian refugee camp, and The Guardian has shed light on the fact that there are now 80,000 people locked in tiny concrete boxes with a solitary confinement VR experience. As it’s very unlikely that most of us are ever going to be a refugee in a refugee camp or trapped in solitary confinement, VR is allowing us to see and do things we wouldn’t normally do, regardless of where we live. This is important especially because as a people we’re not disgusted and horrified anymore by the images we are fed online and on TV. We’ve become desensitized to what it must be like to suffer so much. To make matters worse, we’re perpetually distracted. VR offers us a way to block out the external world and fully concentrate on something worthy of our full attention.
Of course, VR can only be taken up as quickly as people have access to the technology. In the meantime, make the most of these very, very early days, expect that mistakes will be made, and make your VR experiences an extension of your brand, not independent of it.
Charles Barber is vice president, PR and thought leadership, for The Economist. Stay in touch on Twitter @CharlesSBarber.