Commentary

How Do You Advertise In VR? Very Carefully

Virtual reality is still very new — so new there aren’t any guidelines (let alone established techniques) for how brands should use it for advertising.

That’s according to Dan Ryan, AccuWeather’s head of global digital media business development, who highlighted some publishers’ early efforts at MediaPost’s Publishing Insider Summit on Tuesday. He also cautioned that most are experimental, with advertising playing a marginal role if any.

“There are no standards whatsoever for any of the 360-degree video advertising,” Ryan noted. “It’s still a wild wild west of sorts.” That leaves a lot of room for experimentation, of course. “Right now, there are certainly organizations making money ... but the traditional ad model, which we’re all used to in traditional digital media, isn’t following along as fast.”

Indeed, the whole advertising question may be premature, as many publishers are first focusing on building an audience for their VR editorial content — outside natural categories like gaming — in the hopes “we’ll build the audience and the monetization afterwards,” Ryan said.

To that end, AccuWeather has made some gripping VR experiences, like a hair-raising tornado chase with “extreme meteorologist” Reed Timmer. It also produced a VR app that allows users to experience the weather in different places in real time.

Other big publishers, like The New York Times, USA Today, National Geographic and Discover are investing in VR content, but the ad side remains a bit of a puzzle.

While the content may be compelling, there are a few obstacles to VR advertising. Any attempt to insert commercial messages directly into the VR experience, through video or images, faces the same problem of traditional media. What if the viewer is looking somewhere else?

“You could turn around and be looking at different places,” Ryan noted. “It’s hard to place a direct ad piece in front of somebody when they might be experiencing something behind them. How do you wrap branded content into your piece, under those conditions" he asked.

Missed attention is the least of it.

Ariel Shimoni, director of virtual reality for StartApp, warned that interruptive ad techniques, used to annoy consumers, might now make them physically ill in a VR environment. “In VR, the annoyance levels are tenfold for regular online ads, to the point that a bad advertisement can cause physical discomfort. There are real physiological levels of annoyance possible with this technology.”

However, that hardly means the situation is hopeless; publishers just need to proceed with care and always put user experience first.

Thus, Ryan identified a number of relatively safe approaches, including pre-roll ads and sponsorships, while Shimoni recommended techniques leveraging VR’s interactivity to put the consumer in control of the ad experience.

In one example last year, StartApp helped create an ad for Fruity Pebbles’ “Yabba Dabba Doo” campaign, which allows users to experience a madcap 30-second video before a virtual roller-coaster ride, but only after a rather surreal opt-in.

“As you sit on the roller coaster on the right side, there’s a lever, and on the left side, there’s a glowing globe, where you look at it. Then you’re transported into the globe and the 30-second video starts. It’s all triggered by the user, and it’s far less annoying than popping something up.”

Shimoni also pointed out that Samsung is testing VR Web browsing, with related ad opportunities.

“Exploring the Web in VR can be very cool. It opens up the possibility of advertising and monetization that takes place in that space. You might have a standard 2D banner you can view in 3D, but then the clickthrough can open up a whole new interactive environment. With Web VR, you can build gorgeous experiences inside the browser, which can be quite seamlessly integrated as a 360-degree immersion.”

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