Virtual Reality is one of the hottest buzzwords in digital marketing right now. Video production companies are rebranding themselves overnight as VR studios to try to tap into the frenzy and jump on this latest bandwagon.

It’s the early days for the technology, at least in terms of its deployment by brands for marketing purposes. But the gaming, travel, and retail sectors all seem keen on the technology.

The New York Times has released 29 VR films so far, but plans to create dozens more in the coming years.
The New York Times has released 29 VR films so far, but plans to create dozens more in the coming years.

In the publishing world, it has yet to make significant inroads, largely due to the lack of kit needed to enjoy a VR experience, namely the headsets. These exist, from the Samsung Gear at the cheaper end of the spectrum to Oculus Rift at the other, but no one is buying these in huge numbers at this stage.

But there are even cheaper alternatives in the shape of Google Cardboard VR headsets and others like them, which typically sell for around US$10. In the United States, one publisher, The New York Times, has been working hard to get its readers on board with VR. In November 2015, it gave away one-million Google Cardboard headsets so its readers could consume its VR content.

And, at this week’s Dmexco exhibition and conference in Cologne, the Times’ Executive Vice President and Chief Revenue Officer Meredith Kopit Levien took to the stage to explain how the company is approaching VR from both editorial and commercial perspectives.

While VR will never obviate the need for journalism as we know it, she told delegates, The Times believes it represents one tip of the iceberg in the coming quantum leap in our ability to help people understand, engage with, and form opinions on world events. The company also sees it as one of a number of emerging breaks of constraints that have dictated the form factors of journalism and marketing for a long time.

“Up until now, a narrative or a story was the easiest way for us to communicate something, but now VR and other technologies can do more than just distillation,” she said. “We can bring people into the native experience and give them a chance to form an opinion and draw their own conclusions.”

She said The Times had developed a number of principles that shape its approach to VR. One of these is that it’s not for linear storytelling, plot, directing, editing, or sequential narrative. “Do not try and tell a sequential story in VR because it will not work,” she said. “The user is supposed to be the narrator; they decide where to go next.”

She was also keen to point out that VR is not for everything. It’s at its best, she said, when someone’s presence at a scene enhances their ability to understand what happened there. She used the example of a Donald Trump rally to explain how the Times’ VR coverage helped give a feeling of the energy in the room and the passion Trump somehow inspires among his supporters. 

Equally, she said, The Times’ commercial creative shop, T Brand Studio, will deliver around 200 projects in 2016, of which only around a dozen will involve VR. That said, out of the 29 VR films — editorial and commercial — The Times has produced so far, a commercial production for GE is one of the four most-viewed.

Other interesting stats: Those 29 films have been viewed 10 million times, with viewers spending an average of six minutes engaging with the content.

Key to the success The Times has enjoyed has been a willingness to take risks, Levien said. Those risks are not just with VR but with other ways of engaging with readers, like Deputy Sports Editor Sam Manchester sending personal text messages to readers from the Olympics this summer. And that risk-taking is not just “around the edges,” but on live events such as the Rio text project.

This, she said, played into another of The Times’s guiding principles on VR. That is, to do new things, you need a new operating model. “You have to be able to take risks on almost everything, so long as the risks advance the core business proposition,” she said.

She noted also that, three years ago, The Times’ large ad business was based purely on selling space. Three years on, T Brand Studio has 100 creators working across three continents, and, in addition, The Times has acquired both an influencer network and an experiential agency specialising in VR production. “This is all in the name of delivering extraordinary things,” she said.

With risk-taking, of course, come mistakes, but while Times readers are quick to pick up on mistakes the publisher made in its print edition, Levien said, when it comes to new formats, they tend to go along for the ride and credit them for trying it: “VR is the best example of that.” 

In a similar vein, on the weekend of the big Google Cardboard giveaway, The Times didn’t really have to do much to promote it. The readers did it for them, taking to social media to share photos of their new toy.

There were many lessons for other publishers in what Levien had to say. Take risks. Use VR and other formats when they are fit for the purpose, but don’t get so carried away with the tech that you start trying to deploy it in scenarios where it’s just not appropriate.

What resonated most with me, however, was the willingness to invest and be bold. Even at cost price, it made a significant investment to seed the market with those one million Google Cardboard headsets, recognising that the best VR content in the world is useless if the people it’s produced for don’t have the means to enjoy it.