3 Main Marketing Challenges of VR and How to Overcome Them

Kaleidoscope VR Film Festival Los Angeles

Stop Thinking like Developers and Start Thinking like Consumers

Well into 2016, there is a boatload of money being thrown at VR. With two official unicorns and dozens of players closing funding rounds in the 8 digits, the race to revenue is officially on and pressure is mounting to show investors the money sooner than later.

Since it is Marketing’s job to bring that money in, marketing execution will be a critical factor in determining whether the platform is destined for ubiquity like the television, the smart mobile device, and the internet, or fad-dom á la wearables and 3D TV.  (Marketing encompasses more than just promotion, a common misconception; see here for the AMA’s official definition.)

Despite all the hype surrounding VR, there’s still a very real risk of failure; just because “you build it”, doesn’t mean “they will come”.  Mind-blowing technology with all the bells and whistles in the universe (or metaverse) won’t be enough without successfully tackling specific, troubling marketing challenges that have emerged thus far.  VR marketers at firms across both the hardware and content sides need to address these issues quickly, as they pose current risks to widespread market adoption.

*Author’s Note:  This is not an exhaustive list of all challenges facing VR market adoption, of which several could be considered, including price point.  This list is intended for VR marketers regarding branding and consumer awareness, trial, affinity, and adoption.


Challenge #1: Bad Press

Chances are you’ve heard at least one of the following ideas; whether the positions are based upon fact or opinion is irrelevant as they drive negative perception of VR regardless and, therefore, need to be stopped in their tracks. Examples of said bad press include:

VR is an isolating technology.  There have been several articles and even formal academic research supporting this theory.  Opinions vary and this predictive worry is far from substantiated, but VR marketers will do well to preempt it by emphasizing the social aspect of VR.  Even with the main early-adopter target, the gamer (who epitomizes antisocial stereotyping), marketers should focus on pitching VR as a technology that can truly bring people together, instead of the opposite.

VR gets people sick.  OK, this argument had a factual basis in earlier days of development and is still true, to some extent, with certain individuals prone to motion sickness and with some entry-level headsets that simply can’t match the performance of higher-end setups.  However, as a known and obvious barrier to VR market adoption, motion sickness is being actively resolved through improved product development.  Marketers should address the issue head-on: educate consumers about anti-sickness features that have been added, encourage feedback about the issue (then send to product managers), and respond to complaints in a human way.

VR is for dorks and you look dumb in that headset.  Most trained marketers are familiar with the reference group framework (Likert and Hayes, 1957), whereby an individual compares himself against a relevant group as a standard of reference.  Peers we consider equals are our associative reference group, people we look up to are our aspirational reference group, and those we would not like to associate with are our dissociative reference group.  As marketers, we rely heavily on the aspirational group – athletes, celebrities, and other societal influencers that embody traits we consider aspirational: beauty, intellect, youth, strength, success, etc. Unfortunately, most creative (that is, imagery and copy) surrounding VR to date centers around “the person with the headset on” and other such “nerdishness”, landing it solidly in the dissociative group for most would-be consumers.  No one aspires to be that dork in the headset. VR marketers need to get back to branding basics, using creative that conveys the aspirational attributes of the technology; power, wonder, creativity, beauty, freedom, and limitless potential are all far more compelling qualities of VR than the physical headset itself.

HTC and GameStop are testing in-store demos of the Vive VR system at select stores.

HTC and GameStop are testing in-store demos of the Vive VR system at select stores.

Challenge #2: You Can’t Understand VR Until You Try It

The general consensus among those who have tried VR is that it is practically impossible to communicate the appeal of the technology by any other means than experiencing it for oneself.  VR simply can’t be described or comprehended using words, pictures, video, or other traditional modes of communication.  This is likely due to VR being a wholly new and distinct medium in and of itself, akin to the radio, television, or the internet.  Imagine trying to explain the appeal of the television to someone who’d never seen a TV before using only the written word, or the internet using only the radio.

Although some information may come through on a conceptual level, the technology is not truly understood until experienced.  If the experience of VR is not even understood until one tries it, then how can marketers expect VR to be appreciated and, ultimately, valued enough to drive a purchase without one trying it?

Marketers of VR, then, should seriously consider replacing most spend on existing media (print, outdoor, TV, and digital) with a very healthy dose of experiential campaigns.  Rather than paying six or seven figures for television or even digital placements, partner with competent experiential agencies to activate mass sampling in an innovative, impactful way instead.  Experiential marketing, in general, tends to have considerably more impact on top-of-mind awareness, brand affinity, and purchase consideration than other, more pervasive marketing channels. “I don’t know if you or I could identify what our last tweet or post was or the billboard we saw on the way to work”, says Kelly Vaught, owner of Becore, an experiential agency that has activated campaigns for Red Bull and Nike SB. “But I do remember my first concert, when I got my driver’s license, and kissing my wife goodbye this morning. When we experience something, it’s embedded in us in a way that’s fundamentally different than reading something or looking at something passively.”

Experiential marketing promotes word-of-mouth, which may go a long way to nudge consumers down the VR purchase funnel.  Simply put, a single, unmanned demo unit on the Best Buy floor is not going to cut it; marketers need to facilitate public, group VR experiences and leverage social media and influencers to amplify campaigns.

This isn’t to say VR marketers should entirely ignore existing media; it still makes sense to activate more tactical, event-based and inventory-based promotions across TV, print, outdoor, and digital.  But during this initial phase, when market awareness and consumer trial is key, experiential is by far the most promising approach.

Samsung Gear VR Rink

Challenge #3: Typical Early-Stage Growing Pains

Whenever anything is new, it’s usually far from perfect – VR is no different.  Compared with the quality of existing 2D-screen experiences, current VR experiences leave a lot to be desired.  Not just in terms of image quality, either; on the gaming side to a certain degree and definitely on the cinematic side, VR producers have yet to involve high-level screenwriters, actors, and directors. The medium has yet to release its “opus”, and some in the industry are frustrated with the limited selection of high-quality content.  “Samsung launched the Gear with Milk, their beautifully designed browsing destination.  But viewers could watch all the titles in one afternoon. And very few of them were super compelling or really showed off VR to its best advantage,” VR evangelist Gentry Lane, owner of TDO Productions, a company specializing in high-end cinematic VR, asserts.  “Six months later, we still have the problem of ‘VR is awesome, but there’s nothing good to watch’.  At this point, it’s really up to the platform owners to invest in premium content in order to keep viewers engaged.”  To Ms. Lane’s point, perhaps it is time for VR business leaders on the hardware side (where hardware players like Oculus, Gear VR, and Vive are supported by much larger, established companies in Facebook, Samsung, and HTC, for example) to consider increasing their support of premium content producers, which are typically small and independent.  After all, the success of each is entirely interdependent on the other.

Overcoming these challenges is not an impossible task, yet it is also a task not to be ignored.  As VR enthusiasts, evangelists, and those who have taken the plunge and staked their careers on the technology succeeding, the VR community owes it to itself to understand and appreciate the significance of marketing in determining future success. In tech, by nature, it’s easy for the industry to become enamored with the product.  However, to accelerate growth and cross the chasm of adoption, VR as a whole must remember it will take thoughtful marketing every bit as good as the technology itself to win.

About the Scout

Lea Kozin

A champion of applying leading-edge marketing across media, entertainment, sports, and now VR, Lea Kozin is a marketing director, active speaker and blogger. She's also probably one of the only people who was both featured on a rap album and a medalist on the high school academic decathlon.

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