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Immersive marketing as the world self-isolates

I write this during a global pandemic. Countries close their borders, marching their army onto the streets to regulate people leaving their homes. The consequences are more people working from home; waking up, making coffee, working, and sleeping in the same building. People cannot go to their shopping street, the cinema, restaurants, cafes, or anywhere else. Just a few square meters of life, condensed.

The trend goes beyond the pandemic. People have been isolating themselves for years, as the internet makes it easier to enjoy social activities from their home. Online video games let people socialise and play together from their sofa, not the arcade. Some friends prefer to video-chat and talk about their day, rather than meet in the local shopping centre. Want to watch a movie? Head to someone else’s home and switch on a live-streaming service, not go to the over-priced cinema down the road. We’ve been self-isolating for years; taking our choice to go outside solidifies the point.

The societal shift will negatively impact the hospitality sector. The world economy will shake, jobs will be lost, and good companies will take years to recover. Yet it is also an opportunity for other companies to thrive. Microsoft Teams saw a massive spike in use – alongside crashes as the world logs on their computers. Agencies specialised in organising online events thrive, as companies seek alternatives to physical gatherings. And for the immersive community, they see an opportunity for immersive experiences to make their stand.

The opportunity for marketers is much more significant as people have fewer options if companies take the right steps.

The movement towards isolation

First, I should be clear: we are moving towards isolation. A lot of our entertainment comes from sitting at home, relaxing with friends while using the internet. Netflix is one of the biggest entertainment platforms in the world, providing content to millions of people. Amazon surged in popularity because anyone can buy anything, from computers to carpets, and have them delivered the next day. The same goes for grocery shopping, which is why Amazon bought Ring in 2018. Video game companies let us play games with our friends from around the world – and is now a more significant industry than movies or music. Our habits have changed, and the biggest tech companies have given us the tools to expand our horizons from the comfort of our sofas. Yes, the current global pandemic forced people to stay at home and not go to restaurants, pubs, and cafes. Yet it also highlighted how much time we already spend at home, re-doing what we usually do on our laptops and TV.

The exception? Experiences. Both Millennials and Gen-Z want to spend their money on experiencing something new or exciting with friends, rather than owned products. According to research by Savvy, 73 per cent prefer experiences over products in-store. In response, London saw a massive surge in escape rooms, giving people memorable days and nights out. When people prize an impactful time with friends over the products they own, the streets of cities adapt. But equally, VR and AR can offer impactful experiences as well, in much the same way that a powerful film can sway viewers. Why can’t a powerful VR film be treated an experience as well? That’s where the market opportunity lies.

The opportunity for augmented reality

The retail sector is adapting as fast as possible. Already beset by issues such as lower footfall, shifting consumer trends battered companies like House of Fraser and HMV. Over the last decade, companies shed thousands of jobs to keep their margins. The companies’ roots were deep, but even they couldn’t weather the flock of eCommerce companies that pecked away their profits.

The situation becomes worse when people cannot leave their house or do not wish to. The solution is to bring all the retail experiences at home. People go out to the shops to try on new clothes, instead of risking a purchase online. ASOS is an exception, as they offer free returns when clothes do not fit properly. But even then, it seems like a waste of time to buy clothes, try it to see if it fits and if it doesn’t returning them to try again. AR can help bring the same experience at home, as an accurate try-before-you-buy tool.

Take Burberry. The company incorporated AR features in their Google search results, as models that appear on flat surfaces. Anyone can use Google for searching for products, so it makes sense to extend the capabilities towards virtual objects. The technology has potential for the future. When people search on Google, they have an ‘intention’. Google’s algorithm is designed to try and match the search results to the user’s intentions as closely as possible. If people search ‘bread near me’, Google responds with map markers of nearby bakeries and stores. If someone searches ‘the best movies of 2019’, Google will respond with a ‘featured snippet’ of movies, taken from a top-ranking article. Typically when people search for ‘best handbags,’ pieces come up from sites analysing the best ones. But surely the searcher would prefer to see more information on said handbags, straight from their mobile browser? Why not see the best bags for yourself, on your table – would it satisfy your search enquiry?

Or take packaging. When people buy food, the packaging acts like an owned channel with an opportunity to massage their corporate messaging for their customers. Why not elevate the experience with AR? Take the customers along a brand journey, immerse them in the story, and draw data from their interactions that can be fed into other initiatives? Coca-Cola is one example of a campaign in South Africa, prompting people to use face filters activated via their bottles. It is also why WebAR is critical for marketing; as many phones as possible should be able to activate the experience, regardless of the apps downloaded. If enabled via a simple in-browser link, then anyone can see the brand’s marketing.

As people lift their feet at home, companies are looking for new ways to reach them. Immersive marketing can work, crafted for their needs.

An example of retail marketing using immersive technology. Credit: Burberry.
An example of retail marketing using immersive technology. Credit: Burberry.

The opportunity for virtual reality

Now let’s turn our attention to VR. Previously, I’ve written about how VR is a closed system. Users don their headset at home and browse through a limited number of applications, ranging from games to movies. Meetings can be held in VR, or watching sports events as if they are in the stands. VR headsets can also be exercise tools too, depending on the right fitness games selected for play. In a limited space, VR offers a boundless playground.

But all the same, we are talking about marketing. And the opportunity is slim if people are stuck at home.

How can VR help with marketing? The most popular has been on-site experiences for consumers. Imagine walking past a train station, and you see an airline holding a stand with a couple of chairs and VR headsets. Users can then sit down, experience a new country, and decide whether they are interested in any deals related to the holiday. Simple but effective. The approach is also a popular way of using VR as a new thread of marketing in an integrated campaign. Yet in a time where people isolate, willingly or otherwise, how can these campaigns continue?

Another option is VR experiences that can be downloaded for free and tried at home. REWIND created a short immersive experience for Curfew: Join the Race, as part of the Sky show’s marketing campaign. Anyone can play it at home if they have the right headset, which in turn markets the show.

The campaigns can work in theory, though numbers are difficult to find. The problem is discovery; how people see the experiences, to begin with. Even if advertised on social media, not everyone has a VR headset to try it out. And of everyone who has a VR headset, how many would be interested in the end-product? If the product’s intended audience also happens to use VR headsets, then it could be useful.

In any case, there is not a clear link between marketing and VR when it is in lockdown. While VR arcades flourished in terms of entertainment, there are other ways to reach customers with a more definite link to KPIs. VR headsets are stuck as platforms, working better as experiences tried outside of the home.

REWIND made an experience for Sky's new show. Photo credit: REWIND.
REWIND made an experience for Sky’s new show. Photo credit: REWIND.

Where immersive marketing will go

Ultimately, it feels like mobile is the future for immersive marketing for isolation. When people are stuck at home with their phones as entertainment, AR is a deliverable way of guiding purchasing decisions. The content is more easily accessible than via a VR headset, outside of a closed system. Experiences can be shared via a web link, no matter what applications are installed. And there is a deliverable purpose, linked directly to the goals of the company with the data to prove it.

As we stay at home, we tend to browse our phones idly. With AR, brands can connect more intimately with their customers. A big opportunity lies ahead for anyone who serves them with great immersive content.