As the “new and emerging” technology of augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) continues its steady march into the mainstream, consumers are beginning to expect immersive experiences when engaging with brands, businesses and organisation.
No longer the realm of the technical elite alone, thanks to mass market AR platforms like Snapchat and accessible VR kit like Google Cardboard, this interest has inevitably meant that PR professionals have had to turn their attention to immersive technology and try to figure out where it fits into its communication toolkit, if at all.
The relevance of the technology in PR was the key question at our event, run in collaboration with CIPR North West. We welcomed a group PR practitioners from across the region to the studio for an evening of discussion and tech demos to really get to the heart of the subject.
On our panel for the evening comprised a host of Liverpool-based immersive technology experts, Becky Jones from Draw & Code, Owen Cotterell, founder of Juice Immersive, Kelly Forshaw, Marketing and Communications Manager from Laduma and our very own MD Gavin Sherratt.
What are AR & VR?
The event started tackling a deceptively simple question - what is AR and what is VR?
In its most simple terms VR implies the complete immersion in a virtual environment that shuts out the physical world, while AR adds digital elements to a live view often by using a smartphone or tablet device, or as succinctly described by Becky from Draw & Code, “AR is when you see the world around you and you add to it.”
But it’s just not that simple. There is a sliding scale of AR and VR experiences that you can have. AR can be phone based or marker based, while VR can be experienced in a headset from a fixed point or using 360-video, or even on a desktop browser with no need for a headset at all.
As for the implied isolation of VR? Well that definition has been blown out of the water by Liverpool-based start-up vTime, a VR social network that allows anyone, anywhere to spend quality time with family and friends in virtual environment.
And then there’s Mixed Reality (MR) to think about. Head spinning yet? We know how you feel. Our panel agreed that the various labels were a problem for comms professionals exploring ways to use the tech. So what is the resolution? Bin the labels
“Bin the labels and let’s start talking about immersive technology instead” was the opinion of Gavin, supported by the rest of the panel, including Kelly from Laduma who highlighted that knowing exactly what tech you want to use isn’t the most important thing that PRs commissioning tech agencies should know.
“It’s far more important that you know what you want out if the tech. What you want it to achieve,” she said. “That way we can advise the best route to take, even if that means telling you immersive technology isn’t right for you.”
The constantly-shifting definitions are an attribute of technologies whose full potential and most useful applications haven’t been discovered yet. Although now reaching a mainstream audience and the subject of regular debate, the fact is that much of what is being created is brand new - a foray into the unknown.
Commissioning Immersive Technology
Re-iterating Kelly’s point, immersive content specialist Owen highlighted the BIMA Immersive Technology Think Tank’s eight-point guide for best practice in VR.
“The first point is ‘does VR make strategic sense?’ - and it’s the first question PR professionals or anyone working with VR should consider,” he said.
This means considering if the tech is appropriate for the brand and the end user, as well as if it fits into a wider strategy. Incorporating immersive technology into a wider campaign was a tactic that our experts have seen deliver results for clients.
One example of this was from Laduma, who created a 360 VR immersive fan engagement experience for HSBC and The Open, which celebrated Henrik Stenson’s iconic 2016 victory. While the experience saw significant footfall and certainly delighted many fans throughout the event, the real winner for the brands was the use of the content created by the experience.
Kelly explained: “We had a young fan in the headset commenting excitedly on everything he saw. While he was in the experience we brought Henrik Stenson himself out, so that when we removed the headset, he was just crouched in front of him.
“The reaction was priceless and that video and the amount of shares and engagement it received more than delivered on our client’s objectives.”
Similarly a campaign with Sure that put fans the shoes of Everton FC star, Ross Barkley, as he set about training at Finch Farm what a great success - but with the immersive content well integrated into a wider campaign strategy.
The message here - communications professionals need to ensure a solid PR strategy around the activation on dissemination of immersive technology and content, it won’t deliver results in complete isolation.
So to the big question, posed early on by one of our delegates. What’s the answer to the client question “How’s it going to help me sell my product/service?”
Making the immersive measurable
Technology agencies know how important this is and guess what - it’s important to us too. We want to know that what we create makes a difference. The founding principle of Mashbo is to “build things people use”. We’re not into using tech for tech’s sake.
But when you are working with such new technology, sometimes the answer to “do you have the statistics to back this up?” or “can you show me how this technology has increased sales?” is, at the moment, no.
That is of course only against the traditional measurables that PR clients are likely to ask. Specifically Return on Investment (ROI).
There are some measurables. AR platform Snapchat - an accessible, cost-effective entry level route into the world of immersive - can tell you how many people used a snapchat geofilter and how much engagement it got and the figures can be staggering. Gatorade’s Super Bowl Snapchat geofilter was watched by more people than the Super Bowl itself, for example.
But like with social media vanity metrics like follower numbers, is just looking at the figures the wrong idea? Immersive technology has the power to attract and retain, could we argue that a retail brand getting a million passive views/interactions is less of a victory than one getting a 1,000 that then take action and make a purchase or go in store? Of course we can and we should.
Find your own metrics
Working with John Lewis & Partners on a AR element of its recent rebrand campaign (to an exceptionally tight deadline), Becky highlighted that the measurables were often relative to what the brand wanted to achieve from the activation.
“For John Lewis & Partners and their rebrand the goal was to add something extra to the experience in their bricks and mortar store, something that many high street retailers are having to consider.”
The result was Draw & Code’s interpretation of the brand’s personal shopper experience, implemented in AR.
The take home? While in its infancy defining the measurables immersive technology are tricky, so when integrating it into PR campaigns, agencies and clients need to find their own metrics and make them clear when commissioning work.
Metrics could be based around dwell time, emotional engagement, user experience, gaining knowledge (the panel highlighted how analytics are beginning to allow access to identify the most ‘looked at’ points in YouTube video, identifying the thing or product that is grabbing the most attention) or even data collection, such as incorporating download and data collection points within an immersive experience, as Mashbo has done for Edge Hill University.
New standards of measurement are emerging - but they are not there yet. Until those statistics fully emerge, brands need to decide what success looks like for them and tech firms need to guide them on if that is achievable via immersive tech.
Continuing the discussion around the John Lewis & Partners project, Becky added: “With a two-week timescale we had to keep it simple but great quality to meet brand expectations.”
This brought us to a common sticking point that tech consultants experience when dealing with PR and Marketing clients at agencies and in house - the expectation of perfection.
Don’t Expect Perfection
“We have worked with clients to create 360 VR experiences that they have immediately wanted to do a big launch and fanfare around,” explained Gavin. “But that’s not what we want. Releases need to be slow and steady, you still get the impact but it just takes a little longer.”
Immersive technology firms know that they are working with new and fragile frameworks that can change at a moment’s notice and impact experiences built within them. They are always fixable, but it’s important that PR professionals understand and explain this to their clients as well.
“Despite it seeming quite mainstream the foundation of the technology is still evolving. Thing change and things break,” said Gavin. “The vast majority of end users engaging in this tech are used to this. It’s clients that tend to find this more problematic.”
“Don’t expect perfection and the whole package immediately,” said Becky. “It’s much better to get something simple that works out there first and them improve it incrementally.”
It’s an approach that Draw & Code are taking with the studio’s groundbreaking AR game Swapbots - and it’s working a treat.
Go Big or Go Home
The other big question of the evening was around budgets. How much should PR professionals expect to pay to incorporate immersive technology into its strategies?
The answer will always caveated by dependency on the size and scale of the brief. To recreate a project like Owen’s collaboration with Mashbo - Sibro VR - which involved 10 days 360 filming in France, the ballpark would be £50k+ for the content alone, before the platform through which to deliver that content is even considered.
There are accessible options, such as Snapchat geofilters, where the cost to create that filter would be minimal, but the budget needed to gain the paid reach through the platform would be considerably higher.
“For some brands and businesses at this stage VR and AR should be something to consider for the future based on budget alone,” said Kelly. “For those that do have the budgets it really is a case of go big or go home.”
One element of financial relief mentioned was research and development (R&D) tax credits, a route that our panel advised PR professionals to explore and discuss as a way of clawing back budget.
Silly ideas can make millions
Wrapping up the evening, the panel agreed that immersive technology was more relevant to some sectors than others, with fan engagement experiences in the sport and leisure sector, customisation apps in the automotive sector and training in the healthcare sector considered effective arenas for use, along with immersive tours and experiences in education, construction and property and destination marketing.
“If you have an idea then take half an hour to have a brew with a specialist,” summed up Gavin. “That might be all it takes to validate your idea and silly ideas can go on to make millions.”
Using Immersive Tech in PR strategies: The 10 point guide
- Change the labels - talk about immersive technology to widen the scope of possibility
- Find your own metrics- work out what you or your client wants from the technology and measure against that objective
- Ask the big questions - does AR/VR make strategic sense? Does it suit the end user? Can it deliver the outcome my client wants?
- Don’t expect perfection - technological advancement will always outpace you. Strive for excellence and develop ideas incrementally
- Elevate your campaigns - don’t expect immersive technology to stand alone, integrate it into wider campaigns to see results
- Encourage clients to be brave - if you’re doing immersive now, you’re a trailblazer, well done. Don’t be timid about it and trust the specialists
- Manage expectations on budget and timescale - doing immersive well costs money and takes time. There are options on lower budgets and shorter timescales, but expectations need to be aligned to fit
- Make use of R&D tax credits - use new tech to innovate and solve business challenges and get money back
- Immerse yourself in immersive - not just trying stuff out. Read about it, learn about new uses and campaigns, as it is sure to spark more creative ideas
- Validate your ideas - whether it’s an informal chat or full scoping session, working with specialists in the field could validate or negate your ideas, making you money (or saving it) in the long term