Should marketers go all-in on VR in 2017?

If you believe in mass advertising indicators, the big push to put virtual reality goggles under the Christmas tree is a sign that VR has arrived. Or you can follow the money. According to analyst firm Digi-Capital, $2.3 billion in venture capital went into augmented reality (AR) and VR startups between 4Q 2015 and 3Q 2016. And the action isn’t all on the venture side—IDC projects that 9.6 million VR units will be sold by year’s end, representing over $2 billion in customer spending.

It’s adding up to give 2017 the feel of a year that will define whether or not you were capital-T There when VR became a capital-T Thing. It’s also bringing into focus the fact that VR production can be a little more complicated than simply playing video two inches away from somebody’s face.

“There are clearly brands for which VR has immediate application, like gaming and cars,” says Larry Harris, chief strategy officer of video advertising platform Sightly. “But a full VR experience is a big production, more akin to making Star Wars than making a traditional commercial.”

The growing installed base is pulling in attention from advertisers across the spectrum. Specialty agency Pandora AR & VR Technologies specializes in work for architectural, interior design, and hotel clients, with occasional dabbling for pioneers in food and beverage. Their business model is shifting from outgoing calls to incoming inquiries. “This year we started to see more people calling us, telling us they have budget to try something now in VR and AR and are looking for ideas,” says Alper Guler, business analyst at Pandora AR & VR.

If you want to have a stake in VR without looking like a cynical prospector, here’s what to keep in mind.


Stick with what you know

Simply experimenting with VR is, in itself, an edgy proposition. You don’t have to try to revolutionize every element of how your brand is perceived in the process. Try something simple and interactive, which feels authentic to your brand. That should still be enough to get your VR efforts noticed.

“In 2016, brands that came out with interesting, compelling content got a lot of organic reach,” says Clifton Dawson, founder and CEO of VR industry analysts Greenlight Insights. “Next year you’re still going to be able to get a lot of organic reach and social media buzz. There’s still a ton of room for experimentation.”

Some verticals will find this easier than others. Experiences which mirror a well-understood, easily-rendered representation of reality are fairly straightforward to implement. That’s why real estate, architecture, and retail have been strong early adopters.

“For franchisees and mall operators, putting together a VR walkthrough is very doable, you don’t need fantastic talent for that,” Harris says. “You can advertise yourself as an experience, and distinguish yourself for having a VR presence.”


If you don’t know, don’t force it

Agencies are going to be eager to convert their experiences in audience engagement, 3D, and user experience into something new and delightful. Challenge your partners to come up with compelling ideas. But don’t be afraid to punt if nothing actually sounds worthwhile.

“With VR comes the potential to deliver more video inventory,” Harris says. “But I was talking to a client today and had to tell them that I just don’t know what the ad for their brand is that would go into a VR experience.”

Push on the track record of partners or direct hires claiming to have VR experience. Just knowing your way around 3D graphics and video, and actually designing interactive experiences, are two different things. Equally important is bringing in people who are results-oriented.

“If you’re not thinking now about measurement, that’s a mistake,” Dawson says. “There are an increasing number of tools that allow you to understand what your users find compelling about your VR experience, and it will often surprise you.”


Understand the risk of sitting out

The app-driven smartphone didn’t truly catch on before the 2007 introduction of the iPhone. Today, the home screen-and-app combo completely defines the mobile experience. Similarly, VR’s biggest days are still some years ahead, but we may see the groundwork unfold over the next several months.

Slow adopters can sit back and allow others to define the model, trading off the costs of experimentation against the potential disadvantage of working from behind. “We’re still probably 10 or 12 years out from every [individual] having this technology,” Guler says. “But you have to learn it today if you want to be ahead of the curve.”

Even if the right choice is to do nothing with VR in 2017, it’s still a conversation that should be taking place in media planning and experience design. “We’re still early in this medium’s lifecycle. Know that it’s not just about 2017, it’s about 2020 and 2025,” Dawson says. “But you’ll want to have the skills to tell great stories and create great experiences now and in the future.”

Post by Jason Compton

Jason Compton is a writer with over 15 years of experience covering marketing, sales, and service. Based in Madison, WI, he is a regular contributor to Direct Marketing News, previously served as executive editor of CRM Magazine, and has been published in over 50 outlets.