Virtual Reality (VR) may well become more influential as news brands and advertisers look for new and more engaging ways to tell their stories beyond the traditional and social media platforms.

There has been much talk (and much hype) around the rise of connected devices and creating better experiences for customers in the future. Publishers should take a look at VR and its potential from other industries.

In the United States for instance, major brands such as Coca-Cola and McDonald’s have been experimenting with VR in an effort to engage with young consumers and leverage “mobile” in new and more innovative ways.

McDonald’s is incorporating VR technology into its Happy Meals.
McDonald’s is incorporating VR technology into its Happy Meals.

Although the technology may not be for everyone, marketers in industries such as food, retail, motor cars — and news — could take advantage of initial cheap, cardboard packaging and mobile apps to create engaging and memorable Virtual, Augmented Reality-based viewing experiences.

The New York Times is leading the charge for “news” with an app of VR experiences and movies. (“The Displaced” was its version of events surrounding the Syrian refugee crisis.) In January, the company poly-bagged one million Google cardboard glasses in one of its weekend editions (sponsored, of course) and have now employed a VR editor.

Axel Springer in Germany has invested and obtained shares in Jaunt, a VR company.

Could this be just the beginning?

VR could be the next great storytelling tool for brands (news or otherwise) as it allows people to interact with brands and experiences in a totally new, immersive format.

When using VR, consumers/readers feel like they are a part of the advertiser’s (or news brand’s) story and not just an observer. It “puts you on scene” — you feel like you’re there, like you’re witnessing an actual event.

As various markets (news included) work out ways to exploit this new landscape, we’ll maybe begin to create a newer, lasting relationship with our audiences. Perhaps they will see us as a “go to” as an interest source and for entertainment consumption because they value and feel engaged with the offerings.

VR or AR experiences enable us to “window shop” our products and services in a way that feels life-like.

Volvo, for instance, is one of the leading companies in this field. The company recently encouraged individuals to use a Google Cardboard headset and download the Volvo Reality app for a chance to take a virtual test drive in its new model.

This idea was effective because consumers could take the test drive at their own convenience, without having to visit a Volvo dealership. Consumers in the market for a new car had a great opportunity to view the car’s interior and the “on-the-road” experience.

It is assumed by some in this space that we’ll soon see brands emerge as initial leaders. They will benefit later this year (and into 2017) as the technology becomes more widely accepted and used. (Oculus Rift, owned by Facebook, for example, has just launched its first consumer headset.)

Brands that experiment with VR this year will be rewarded by consumers down the road, and the brands themselves will gain insight and develop commercial partnerships with the key developers of hardware and content.

Initial VR trials have also been lucrative for food marketers looking to take their branded experiences beyond physical stores. McDonald’s (as mentioned earlier) is adding a new element to its Happy Meal purchase by allowing customers in Sweden to download a free mobile app and turn the box into a VR viewer, cementing this fast food chain’s desire to build relationships with younger consumers.

Also, Coca-Cola is also looking at a rollout for a successful VR headset strategy launched in 2015 with Fanta. It is trying to encourage people to recycle cardboard packaging from multi-can packs, pairing it with a smart phone to create a viewer for Coke content.

Coca-Cola is incorporating VR into its strategy while also encouraging consumers to recycle packaging.
Coca-Cola is incorporating VR into its strategy while also encouraging consumers to recycle packaging.

These examples give a glimpse into a newer, more immersive advertising and interaction opportunity. But these are the early days.

VR could ultimately be a new revenue-generating tool for publishers and their advertisers, too, as they seek to try new, immersive ad experiences. But for the immediate future, it seems to be more about taking first steps in this new arena. There is much hype, and some say it may take years to become a mainstream, fully adopted space for everyone.

We should be realistic. Most news brands have many other priorities, but the most innovative ones will want to leverage this new platform, as witnessed by The New York Times and Axel Springer.

VR will undoubtedly enable publishers to connect in new ways with readers and advertisers, certainly in the “discovery” and “explore” phases of any customer life-cycle. Initially, reach will be limited, but watch this space. The proliferation of new VR headsets about to hit the markets worldwide will make for interesting viewing.

Samsung is actively promoting its Gear VR headset as a way to differentiate its new flagship smartphone. HTC and Sony have announced new headsets, and now Oculus Rift as mentioned above.

It seems that VR could offer new ways to keep audiences loyal and engage our readers and advertisers, and it’s something we should all keep a watching.

And we haven’t even touched on the data implications yet …

Creating a better customer experience for me is all about an equation: Technology + creativity + data = a better customer experience.

The future, whether you’re selling tins of baked beans, motor cars, Happy Meals — or news — will be all about creating a better experience.

VR seems to tick many boxes in the above equation.

Will you immerse yourself in its possibilities?