Picture: SUPPLIED
Picture: SUPPLIED

Virtual reality (VR) experiences are becoming more prevalent and impressive. As brands grow in confidence about embracing this technology, it’s increasingly becoming part of the experiential marketing landscape. But are we using VR for the right and most appropriate reasons?

There was something creepy and vaguely Orwellian about the picture of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg walking into a roomful of people all wearing VR headsets at the Samsung Galaxy S7 launch. The Twitter-verse jumped on the image with a recurring comment asking what the point of those present being there was if they were just strapping on headsets.  It might be the most obvious point, but that doesn’t stop it from being a good one.

Since then VR has grown and there are now several products on the market to choose from. The novelty of experiencing VR for the first time may be disappearing, but in the UK and the US we’re seeing the technology shoehorned into live experiences, though it’s yet to take off in SA.

Event planners who bring people to their event just to stick pricy headsets on them will be out of a job as soon as people realise they can get that exact experience at home. The planners will also have wasted an opportunity to engage with their audience.

The use of VR in the future will rely on marketers and event professionals creating engaging virtual experiences people can plug into from anywhere. If the event is live, it needs to be memorable and unique. The latest technology should not be used without thought of how it improves the experience, or how it connects people.

VR content should be engaging – as all communication should be – but it also needs to be relevant and appropriate. To figure out whether VR is the right thing for an event, an activation or a brand engagement, there needs to be a review of what it is meant to achieve and an assessment of whether using it can deliver results.

Time vs appeal

People are busy, and even the promise of the most amazing VR experience needs to be in an environment where people have the time to participate. Alzheimer’s Research UK recently set up a VR installation at London’s St Pancras International station as part of its “Walk Through Dementia” campaign, where visitors were encouraged to experience first-hand what it’s like living with dementia. Setting up an activation in a place where people have some time to kill (trains in the UK rarely run on time) provides a great opportunity for customers to engage with the event.

Inclusive vs exclusive

VR can sometimes be isolating, both for people using it and for those on the outside, so the setting needs to be appropriate. But there are some who find a moment of escapism and tranquility spot-on. Imagine an in-store activation that transported shoppers away from the bustle of the mall to a sun-dappled wheat field, providing a moment of peace for the customer. 

VR takes you away from the moment (and we’re constantly being reminded to live “in the moment”) and transports you to another world, a world without your peers. If you were having a good time before you placed on the headset, doing so might actually detract from your enjoyment. Zuckerberg has already formed a social VR team at Facebook to work towards VR’s inclusivity, but it could be years before there is any kind of real breakthrough and, even then, gathering in a virtual world with friends to see the hottest act perform might just mean that a digital version of ourselves exists. So, does that mean consumers would never truly be there, meaning brands would never truly connect or engage with their users or consumers?

The isolation factor needn’t be something to be feared. It just needs to be acknowledged and understood so it is accounted for when the choice to use VR is made. VR is brilliant; it is taking the experiences and the event landscape to a new level, allowing marketers to tap into places both physical and emotional that were previously unreachable. But to make this work you have to ask if VR is appropriate and relevant for the event, because if it’s not, you’ve just spent a chunk of your budget on a very expensive gimmick. 

The big take-out: As virtual reality technology increasingly becomes part of the experiential marketing landscape, marketers need to ensure that it’s both appropriate and relevant for the event, or they will risk losing an opportunity to engage meaningfully with their users or consumers. 

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