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Is virtual reality marketing the next frontier of digital marketing?

Virtual reality sounds like a concept ripped out of a science fiction movie, alongside flying cars and hovering skateboards. However, virtual reality is far closer than either of those two fantastical technologies to becoming an everyday, well, reality for most Americans as a commercial product.

That means that marketers and advertisers are taking its potential seriously. Depending on who you ask, virtual reality marketing could be right around the corner.

In this blog post, we’ll explore virtual and augmented reality, and discuss the marketing and advertising implications presented by both.

What is virtual reality?

Virtual reality refers to devices that completely immerse users in a different reality, typically through the use of goggles that entirely cover the eyes, noise-cancelling headphones, and even other mechanisms that map the movements of hands, arms, legs, and feet.

Currently, virtual reality is a niche product, bought by enthusiasts and those in the video gaming world looking for something new. Products like the Oculus Rift promise a more immersive gaming experience, while major companies such as Samsung are rolling out their own virtual reality platforms.

Facebook is getting in on the game, while Google has been experimenting with low-cost platforms that incorporate the smartphone already in consumer’s pockets.

In contrast, augmented reality refers to devices like the Google Glass, which allow people to otherwise navigate the real world, but with information displayed in their field of vision.

After its debut as a consumer product, Google Glass served as a punching bag for late-night comedians, but it’s lived a second life in industry and manufacturing, where it helps workers follow steps and seeing details the naked eye alone can’t glimpse.

Some experts believe Glass was ahead of its time. Much like the MP3 player before the release of the iPod, augmented reality devices might eventually catch on with the right product, at the right time.
What does this all mean for digital marketing?

If virtual reality and augmented reality devices are analogous to the MP3 player prior to the iPod, it’s no wonder that businesses of all types are wondering how they can get ahead of it.

Pathway #1: Virtual pay-per-click advertising

Here in the real world, we’ve accepted that advertising permeates our society visually. Driving down the street, you see a billboard. Searching on Google, you see a paid advertisement at the top of your search results. It makes sense that virtual reality, too, will have paid advertising.

If that sounds like speculation, it’s not. Google is already experimenting with this very idea. It’s entirely possible that we could see, in the next few years, an entire new subsection of AdWords built around virtual reality marketing and advertising.

Pathway #2: Virtual reality programming

With enough money and expertise, some businesses will take things a step farther and build their own immersive programs that consumers can interact with using their headsets.

Imagine for a moment that you own a tile flooring company in El Paso, Texas. You ship a lot of tile out of the city, and not all of your customers can visit your physical warehouse to see tile up-close.

What if you could create a virtual reality program that allowed potential customers to explore your store? For high-end or larger commercial bids, you could even ship a Google Glass (currently, $15) to them.

Creating a virtual reality program is currently a large investment because of the extensive camerawork and editing needed, so the early adopters of this idea will most likely be big box retail stores or other enterprises where big dollars are involved.

But, it’s not too far-fetched to think that this capability could be one day within reach of a wider range of businesses—just as more and more everyday consumers taken up virtual reality technology.

What does the future hold for virtual reality marketing?

Virtual reality has the ability to completely transform the way people interact with the Internet. Even if current uses remain niche—although fascinating, such as these doctors using VR to train for brain surgery—it’s likely that the latest breakthroughs, consumer interest, and large-scale corporate investment mean we’ll see VR become more-and-more popular over the next 5-10 years. It could revolutionize marketing as we know it.

Or, maybe not. After all, many smart people thought Google Glass heralded the augmented reality future, and that the “smartglasses” would replace the smartphone as the must-have accessory. It didn’t turn out that way.

Turns out, the leap into virtual reality and augmented reality is harder than a lot of people has thought. Getting a wide audience to engage with augmented / virtual reality is one thing. Figuring out how to effectively advertise in that space is even more of a leap.

Learning what worked and what didn’t with web search took years. How will consumers react to seeing advertising for that aforementioned El Paso tile flooring company in their range of vision while simulating paragliding off of a cliff?

Virtual reality marketing is something that we’ll continue to study, learn about, and think about how to apply to the businesses we work with.

In the meantime, we’ll continue to build effective digital marketing campaigns—no VR goggles needed. (For now)