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Using virtual reality in your small business marketing

Virtual reality is an exciting way for businesses to show off their products and services and is also affordable for small and medium businesses.

Imagine a tourism operator being able to allow potential visitors to take a virtual walk through their hotel; or an online retailer letting shoppers look at one of their dresses from all angles; or an artisan baker giving customers a 3D demonstration of how they bake their bread.

This is virtual reality and many businesses are starting to harness its potential for marketing.

The good news for small and medium businesses is that making a virtual reality video is relatively cheap and simple, and not just for corporations with huge marketing budgets.

First, let’s explain what we mean.

Virtual reality is an artificial environment that is created with software and presented to the user in such a way that the user suspends belief and accepts it as a real environment. On a computer, virtual reality is primarily experienced through sight and sound.

What small businesses can do with virtual reality is limited only by their imagination.

The simplest form of virtual reality is a 3-D image that can be explored interactively at a personal computer, usually by manipulating keys or the mouse so the image moves in some direction or zooms in or out. On tablets and smart phones, it is usually controlled by tilting the device. More sophisticated efforts can involve wrap-around display screens, actual rooms augmented with wearable computers, and haptic devices that let the user feel the display images.

To give you an idea of a simple virtual reality video, this video made by camera company GoPro shows diver Jim Abernethy swimming with a pod of dolphins, and uses 360 video.

Some virtual reality applications require special goggles, such as Oculus Rift, which can sometimes also incorporate gestures and hand movements. These undoubtedly provide much better experiences for the user, but the issue for businesses is that they limit the potential audience to those who own goggles and have them to hand. A low cost option for consumers is the Google Cardboard viewer, virtual reality goggles made of cardboard and lenses. The user downloads some VR apps onto their smartphone and then slips it into the viewer for the VR experience.

360 degree videos, by contrast, are accessible using a computer or tablet, anywhere and anytime.

Social media sites YouTube and Facebook both host 360 degree pictures and videos, allowing many small businesses to simply incorporate the new technology into their social media marketing or on their website via YouTube.

360 degree cameras can be bought for just a few hundred dollars and after a little bit of practice making and editing a 360 degree video is not too different from making a regular video. The main difference is that everything around the camera is filmed, so you have to make sure props and other people don’t accidentally get caught in the picture.

What small businesses can do with virtual reality is limited only by their imagination. A maker of speciality food products who sells them online could give consumers a 3D view of how they prepare their food, demonstrating the care they take and their quality ingredients, and whetting consumers’ appetite for a purchase.

A shop selling craft supplies online could produce 360 videos demonstrating how to build things with a glue gun or how to sew stuffed toys for children. Consider an adventure company that provided white water raft rides. 360 video would let potential customers take a ride on one of the rafts, looking around them as they hurtle down the river. Giving customers a taste for what they’d experience will make them more likely to book a ride on the real thing.

Real estate agents can use virtual reality to let potential buyers “stroll” through a house and look at rooms from any angle – much more interesting than half a dozen static images.

And think about a business’ ‘About Us’ page on their website. In a 360 video, the business owner could show viewers around the business, explaining what the business has to offer and introducing them to key staff as they go. Just remember to tidy up before you shoot the video!

Finally, there’s events. Any business which holds events such as seminars or demonstration should consider posting them on 360 video as a point of difference.

What all of these uses have in common is they are more engaging – or to use the industry jargon more “immersive” – than regular videos, so they really capture the attention of potential customers. One thing to remember, though, is that 360 video can’t create miracles. Uninspiring and insipid content won’t change by just providing a virtual reality view – businesses still need to have something interesting to say and show.

US research company Greenlight Insights says virtuality can enhance a brand’s marketing efforts.

According to a survey of US consumers by the company, 71 per cent agree that a brand that sponsors VR is forward-thinking and modern, while 52 per cent would like to be associated with that brand. Additionally, 62 per cent would feel engaged with a brand that sponsors a VR experience, and 53 per cent say they are more likely to purchase from a brand that sponsors a VR experience.

“If the recent success of Pokémon Go isn’t enough, this data provides concrete evidence to experience marketers who are currently designing for the new experience economy,” says Steve Marshall, senior vice president of research and consulting for Greenlight VR.

Pokémon Go is a form of augmented reality and requires players to wander around their neighbourhoods to collect virtual items a PokéStops and go to Pokémon Gyms. These can attract a huge amount of foot traffic, and some bricks and mortar retailers are using it to their advantage. They are purchasing Pokémon ‘lures’ to draw people towards their shop for half an hour.

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