VR set to take PR on an amazing ride

Virtual reality will change the dynamic of the brand-consumer relationship, say experts who convened at a recent MSLGroup/PRWeek-hosted panel

Samsung is teaming up with Six Flags to introduce North America’s first VR roller coasters
Samsung is teaming up with Six Flags to introduce North America’s first VR roller coasters

"You watch someone put on a VR headset and they instantly grin," noted esteemed tech evangelist Robert Scoble, who recently joined UploadVR as its entrepreneur-in-residence. "Who doesn’t want their brand to be around people smiling?"

With that observation, Scoble touched on the unprecedented emotional connection virtual reality can create between brands and the consuming public.

That was among the prevailing themes of the March 14 panel – entitled Let’s Break Tradition: Virtual Reality in Public Relations – held in Austin, Texas during SXSW. Scoble was joined by Jon Hackett, director of emerging technology at Nurun; Tara Kriese, senior director of marketing at Samsung North America; and Jim Marggraff, founder and CEO of Eyefluence. MSLGroup’s Jeff Melton, SVP of global technology and platforms, moderated the discussion.

While access to VR is still limited, availability is growing rapidly. In fact, numerous leading outlets from CNET to Mashable to The New York Times, which late last year sent out Google Cardboards to 1 million-plus home-delivery subscribers, all predict that 2016 will be the year VR breaks through in a major way. Our panelists certainly agreed, which led them to unanimously offer this advice to PR pros: Dive in now.

"I’m very bullish on VR," reported Kriese. "The smartphone is a VR machine, so this can be scaled quickly. It’s still small, so now is the time for marketers to test things. Soon, it won’t be small."

That prediction is buoyed by the exponentially increasing number of products that are hitting the market now – or soon will be. Among the cameras our panelists highlighted were the Ricoh Theta S and Samsung Gear 360, while headsets mentioned included the aforementioned Google Cardboard, the HTC Vive, and Oculus Rift.

When asked for a specific tactical benefit VR offers communications pros, Hackett was quick to underscore what the platform can do for storytelling, which has emerged as a foundational strategy for all PR campaigns.

"The big adjustment – and opportunity – with VR is you don’t need to have a linear storyline," he explained. "You can go totally nonlinear. Marketers will be able to borrow from what works so well in the gaming industry."

"VR will force marketers and communicators to focus on interactive storytelling," suggested Marggraff, who adds that VR can help brands establish a relationship with consumers that no other platform can.

"With this medium, trust becomes more vital than ever," he said. "Brands get to know more about an individual. They also interact with you on a continuous emotional level. Trust is essential to make that work."

Of course, in a ROI-driven world, marcomms pros need to know any tactic can deliver the bottom-line results C-suites demand. And while it is still a bit early in its evolution to prove full financial impact, panelists were eager to make a business case for VR.

Scoble recalled a recent conversation he had with a marketer from Absolut Vodka about a VR activation the brand had just employed.

"He told me the average time consumers spent was 19 minutes," said Scoble. "They deemed that to be extraordinary for the amount of money paid."

"Time spent is a huge metric for marketers," added Melton. "Getting a target audience’s attention for six seconds is so hard. Anything over two minutes, let alone the 10 or 15 VR can attain, is amazing."

However, the greatest bottom-line result for any brand is the actual consumer purchase. And the panelists universally concurred that VR – and AR (augmented reality) – have clear potential to change the game in that regard.

To illustrate the point, Marggraff presented a demo with Eyefluence’s eye-tracking technology in which he bought a box of chocolates on Amazon.com by only using his eyes. He even shipped them to a friend for good measure. While the specific product he used is still a few years away from being available, it clearly shows the possibilities these emerging technologies can bring to the world.

In summation, Kriese offered, "We are moving from ‘seeing is believing’ to ‘experiencing is believing.’ That’s why VR is so powerful." The nodding heads on stage – as well as among the audience members – confirmed her comments resonated broadly.

"VR will be a key player as the next 10 years will see more mind-blowing product than the last 40," concluded Scoble. "And – again – it makes people smile. If marketers and communicators can’t take advantage of that, what are you doing in the industry?"

The above captures highlights of the panel discussion. For an in-depth look at all our experts’ thoughts, as well as a timeline on VR’s history, an expansive list of products, tips on the best first steps PR pros can take to start their VR journey, and so much more.....

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