Is VR ready for prime-time marketing?

Flash in the pan? Or a mass-marketing technology in its infancy? Two experts square off over whether VR is ready for marketing prime time.

Helen Bertelli
VP, Infinite Global
A leader of her firm’s emerging virtual reality practice

 By 2020, the VR industry is expected to generate more than $100 billion in revenue. Dubbed "the new internet" for its potential to touch and change everything from e-commerce to medicine, VR has demonstrated incredible potential for communicators.

Not only has its ability to elicit more empathy than other media been well documented, but so has its ability to rivet attention. VR creates spaces that users explore for themselves, so they tend to engage longer than they do with other media.

For marketers, more time with an audience translates to greater sales opportunities. A computer company that used VR at a trade show recently saw a 400% improvement in leads and a 52% ROI in sales. People spent extra time in the booth to learn about the product because VR engaged them.

In the B2B space where Infinite Global operates, VR’s potential applications are just as exciting. Law, accounting, and consulting firms’ business models are built upon communicating complex ideas. VR provides unique and compelling ways for them to do so.

In a criminal trial, for instance, jury members could be transported to the scene of a crime, or in an intellectual property dispute, to a lab to learn how biosimilar drugs are produced.

VR also shows great potential for B2B marketing. Today the phrase "our architecture firm has designed more than 200 luxury resorts" might lend itself to an infographic, but the marketers of tomorrow will communicate it via VR. Imagine standing on the shore of a beachfront property. Suddenly the sand at your feet forms hundreds of tiny resort-like sandcastles, or 15,000 papers with architectural renderings cascade around you — an infinitely more powerful demonstration than a 2D infographic.

From the dawn of language and art, stories have been a central part of what it means to be human. VR is the new endgame in storytelling. It does more than just transport the imagination — it transforms the senses so that spectators are no longer "others," but active participants of the story. Because the technology has advanced so far, VR is not only exciting, but also inevitable.

James Holland
VP, creative technology, Text100
Oversees the firm’s creative tech team, which uses new platforms to engage customers

It’s true we’re at a tipping point for VR. Awareness of our virtual future is at record levels, but while early adopters may have their arms in the air and their screaming faces on standby, I’m afraid we’ll be dangling over the roller coaster’s abyss for a little while longer. That’s not because of the technology, but rather the products that use it. The tech is there, but the adoption is not.

As a pop-up stunt or a trade show installation, VR is hard to beat for engagement and word of mouth. In an integrated campaign, it makes perfect sense. But the effect is limited and the audience scarce. Take VR off the show floor, and its appeal unravels.

Acquiring a home VR rig remains prohibitively expensive, with most manufacturers notably quiet on units sold. Some analysts peg sales of desktop-class VR from Oculus Rift and HTC Vive at just 800,000 in 2016.

Add in PlayStation VR, which is cheaper and more user-friendly, but where content is strictly controlled by Sony, and the number rises to 3.4 million. That should sound alarm bells for marketers and PR professionals looking for large numbers of eyeballs. It’s roughly half as popular as Apple’s first iPhone launch to an unsuspecting, and largely uninterested, public a decade ago.

The first iPhones made even stout wallets quiver and sold in relatively low numbers. But new versions followed, prices dropped, and the touchscreen revolution gathered speed. In the VR world, the same may happen, through such products as Samsung Gear VR, which sold 5 million in 2015-16, and Google Daydream, the Android-powered smartphone subbrand from Mountain View.

Look at mobile’s future and you’ll find VR’s audience. The steady march of the upgrade cycle will condition consumers to switch to VR-ready pocket fodder. If Google and Samsung can bait Apple into a fight for virtual supremacy, we’ll have the foundations of a real medium.

In the meantime we’re left hanging, plotting VR tactics into our campaign plans, but knowing deep down that, like the aforementioned roller coaster, this particular wave of  VR hype may have peaked a little too soon.

PRWeek’s View
For some early adopters, VR makes perfect sense, but it’s a long way from being a must-have for all consumer-facing and B2B brands. There’s also plenty of room for improvement. Let’s check back in a year.

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