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Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) Storytelling for Marketing: 4 Things to Know

Pokémon GO, a popular mobile game published by Niantic, is an example of augmented reality.

Oculus Rift, a headset developed by Oculus VR, a division of Facebook, is an example of virtual reality.

You’ve probably heard of Pokémon GO or Oculus Rift, but can you explain augmented reality and virtual reality to a friend?

I went to Google in search of simple definitions. The best definitions are in a CNET article, titled fittingly enough, AR and VR Made Simple. Here are the definitions provided in the article:

  • Augmented reality (AR): “AR is when you look at the real world and see it overlaid, or augmented, with location-specific information and graphics.”
  • Virtual reality (VR): “VR is when the sights and sounds around you are replaced with virtual, computer-generated ones.”

If you have experienced AR or VR, it’s likely as a consumer (e.g., a user of an app or device that implements the technology). A select few have used AR and VR in marketing.

Allen Martinez is one of the select few.

Founder and chief strategist at Noble Digital, Allen presented 4 Principles of Using AR/VR for Successful Storytelling in Your Marketing at ContentTECH Summit.

In this article, I detail the four principles from his presentation.

1. Engage in the human experience

What activity can keep users engaged over several hours?

Playing video games.

The makers of video games know how to engage users in the human experience, Allen says. When you’re creating AR/VR experiences, don’t expect your users to give you as much time as they would video games – you might only have their attention for a few minutes.

However, you can use a framework similar to a game designer. Allen breaks it down:

The top of the list involves active engagement, while the bottom is passive engagement.

Let’s consider each state.

Sensation is immediate and visceral and can be unforgettable. “Maybe you want to put someone in another person’s shoes and have them experience something that’s outside of their normal day,” Allen says. You know the saying, “Walk a mile in someone else’s shoes”? AR/VR can help your audience experience that.

Let your audience walk a mile in another’s shoes with augmented or virtual reality, says @NobleDigitalOne. Share on X

Challenge uses AR/VR to put users on an obstacle course. Allen gives the example of a treasure hunt in a physical store. You could use AR/VR (e.g., in an app on users’ phones) to encourage them to visit certain aisles or look at certain products.

Discovery taps into users’ love of exploring the unknown and solving mysteries. Allen gives the example of a self-guided tour of Europe, showing users all the code stops of the popular novel and movie The Da Vinci Code.

Fellowship uses AR/VR to enable users to experience something together. Allen isn’t aware of a real-world example of this, but one idea is to allow people of a social tribe to see each other within the AR/VR experience.

Expression can be understood in the example of a health-care company. “They could use AR/VR to get users to understand their bodies. Get them to eat their vegetables or whatever end result you want. It might be a good way to start a relationship around your services,” Allen says.

Fantasy permits users to do things they wouldn’t do in the real world. This doesn’t have to be outlandish fantasy, but something rooted in their everyday lives.

Narrative lets users sit back and enjoy a story. “So now we’re tipping more towards film and TV. You’re watching something; you’re absorbing; you’re feeling. It’s a less active experience, but that means your story needs to be that much better,” says Allen.

Submission involves slower-paced activities, such as mining for gold in the game Sim City. Allen notes that submission might not always work for AR/VR but it has the potential to be great when done well.

How do AR/VR designers make use of this framework? Allen begins a conversation and discusses with his clients what they are trying to accomplish. They then determine which of these eight components to incorporate in the experiences they build.

2. Have a deep knowledge of users

Creating AR/VR experiences is no different from any other form of marketing. You need to have a deep understanding of your users.

You need deep understanding of users to create successful AR/VR experiences, says @dshiao. Share on X

Allen highlights an important aspect of AR/VR, which is “freedom of agency.” As Allen explains, “In social science, agency is the capacity of individuals to act independently and to make their own free choices.”

Applied to AR/VR experiences, freedom of agency means users decide how they move around, what actions they take and how they interpret the reality that surrounds them.

A deep understanding of your users guides how much freedom you’ll give them in the AR/VR experience. “It’s part of your scoping: How much agency do you want to give the user? Are they really active or are they really passive? And what’s going to be the best for your brand and for eventual outcomes,” Allen says.

To answer these questions, designers must investigate the psychology of users at a deep level. If you skip this step, then your marketing dollars are better spent elsewhere. “Everything you want the user to think, feel, and do is subject to how they interpret the experience. This does take some investment of time, energy, and focus,” he says.

3. Use schema to guide the experience

The word “schema” can mean different things to different people – I’m looking at you, content strategists. In the context of AR/VR, here is Allen’s definition: “a mental structure of preconceived ideas, a framework representing some aspect of the world, or a system of organizing and perceiving new information.”

Allen illustrates this concept with an example from when he was 8.

Standing on the street with a friend, he heard a car approaching. He couldn’t see the car but could tell it was moving fast. He grabbed his friend and moved them to the side of the road.

The car came over the hill, went off the road, and flipped upside down. Allen’s immediate instinct was to run, as he expected the car to explode. (It didn’t.)

His expectation of the explosion is an example of a schema.

“I watched this show called CHiPs and every car that fell, flipped over, maybe hit a curb, blew up,” Allen says. “And so I assume based on my limited view of the world, that this car was going to blow up. I was running away. I’m like, where’s the blow up?”

How can you make use of schema in AR/VR design? Let users’ preconceived ideas “fill in the gaps,” Allen says.

“Most of the time, users are just walking through a dark space. There’s nothing going on, but their minds are filling in gaps. You can leverage that. Use the right schema as a lightning rod for users, to get them to engage in a way that meets their expectations and your goals.”

To take advantage of schema, think of your users as the protagonists in a story. Guide the experiences by using decision trees factoring in your knowledge of the users, along with their preconceived notions. “It’s like putting Boolean logic on top of script writing,” says Allen.

Think of VR/AR users as protagonists in your story, says @NobleDigitalOne. Share on X

4. Use mobile to create a dialogue with customers

At the beginning of this article, I used the Oculus Rift as an example of VR. Users of the Oculus Rift wear an elaborate headset. According to its product listing on Amazon, the dimensions are 15.4 by 6.5 by 12.1 inches and it weighs 11.45 pounds.

The need to wear clunky headsets is one reason AR/VR has yet to take off. But Allen says that hardware is changing, as AR/VR is available through smartphone apps without the need to wear headsets.

AR/VR is now available through smartphone apps without the need to wear headsets, says @NobleDigitalOne. Share on X

“For organizations looking to get into AR/VR for the first time, you’re going to want to go the mobile route because now there’s a lot of tools and platforms set up for that,” Allen says.

With few brands building AR/VR experiences for their customers, Allen believes the window of opportunity is wide open. He contends that brands not afraid to jump in and figure it out will reap substantial rewards.

And he recommends they go mobile-first. “People are going to want something new to play with. Snapchat has kits that are fully customizable. Facebook has interactive experiences that you can do with or without code. If you’re comfortable coding, Facebook will let you do more complex things,” Allen says.

Will you make AR/VR a reality for your brand?

I know what some of you are thinking now: “I’m getting a grasp on SEO, SEM, and personalization and trying to learn about ABM, native advertising, and AI. Now you want me to add AR/VR to the mix?”

You have a valid point.

There’s no shortage of disciplines and technologies to learn in marketing, and new, shiny objects always draw our attention.

To which I’d respond, “The customer is always right.” Let your customers guide your marketing strategies and activities. Do they have the technology and appetite to participate in AR/VR? If the answer is “maybe” or “yes,” then your first step is to review the four principles covered in this article.

Document your business objectives, of course, and then strategize on how to use AR/VR for effective storytelling to customers.

Here’s an excerpt from Allen’s talk:

I’d love to hear from you. Where does creating AR/VR experiences stand in your road map? If you’re creating AR/VR experiences, let us know what you’ve learned.

Expand your audience’s content marketing experiences by participating in an in-person experience. Attend Content Marketing World Sept. 3-6 and register using code CMIBLOG100 to save $100. 

Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute