The Rise of VR Storytelling (and How to Respond)

Sean Connell , Chief Technology Officer

Storytelling has become an unavoidable buzzword for brand marketers and customer experience managers in recent years. In fact, the number of professionals identifying as storytellers on LinkedIn grew from zero in 2012 to nearly 600,000 in 2018.

There are two popular ideas that embody this trend.

First, there’s the age-old idea that people buy on emotion and justify with logic. Then, there’s this quote from Seth Godin:

      People do not buy goods and services. They buy relations, stories, and magic.

For most brands, storytelling has meant creating content—blog posts, podcasts, advertisements, videos, and more—that resonates with consumers on an emotional or practical level. But as we head into the virtual reality (VR) future, storytelling is set to change.

With VR storytelling quickly becoming the next frontier of customer experiences, brands have to find a way to get ahead of the competition.

How VR Storytelling Changes the Game

If you want to make the most of VR storytelling, you can’t treat it the same as any other storytelling project.

The biggest difference is that traditional stories (marketing and journalism alike) are linear by design. You choose a story that you feel will resonate with customers and deliver it in a way that draws people into the narrative. You’re essentially creating a track for consumers and aiming to craft it well enough to get them to the end.

“Show, don’t tell” is the most common piece of advice for storytellers to achieve that goal. But “show, don’t tell” isn’t enough for VR storytelling.

Unlike traditional, passive mediums, VR storytelling is an active experience. Consumers aren’t just presented with a story and following a track, they’re in the driver’s seat of the experience. As a result, you lose a lot of the control in how consumers explore your stories—and yet, you still need to reach the same end goal of emotional resonance.

Rather than “show, don’t tell,” VR storytelling requires an “engage, don’t show” mindset. Brands need to do everything they can to immerse consumers in their VR experiences. And there are 3 key elements of VR storytelling that help make that happen:

  • Setting Is Everything: VR storytelling gives you an opportunity to place your customers exactly in the setting you want. Unlike journalism of marketing messages where you have to create an image in a consumer’s mind, VR storytelling makes settings come to life. It’s not necessarily about realism. Instead, you want to focus on total sensory engagement.
  • Interactivity: Creating interactive content gives you an opportunity to make consumers an active participant. For example, brands are creating interactive eBooks that change reading experiences. When interactive content is woven tastefully into an eBook, you can connect with consumers on a deeper emotional level.
  • Perspective: The most common VR experiences turn users into first-person characters within the story. However, that’s not your only option. You can create VR stories with third-person points of view. Your choice of perspective will depend on your goals and the story itself. The main point is that your user should never be a neutral observer. Regardless of perspective, consumer should be immersed in the experience.

In these early days of virtual reality, it seems like the main use case is gaming. While gaming has shown the potential of VR storytelling, its implications for brands are much more widespread.

Are Brands Ready for VR Storytelling?

One major roadblock to successful VR storytelling will be a willingness to adapt to self-guided customer experiences. We’re so used to presenting those story tracks and expecting consumers to follow—but what happens when consumers get into your VR experience and don’t interact exactly as you’d expect?

Avoiding problems with self-guided experiences requires a truly customer-centric approach. Even when delivering VR storytelling in the form of advertising, the North Star has to be sensory immersion and engagement, not sales.

Some businesses are already putting this idea into action. One example is the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Last Call 360° experience. This VR application allows consumers to see and feel what it’s like to consider drunk driving—the more drinks a consumer chooses to have, the more the view distorts. In this case, the experience is much more impactful than buying ad space for anti-drunk-driving campaigns.

Brands in any industry can take advantage of the impactful VR storytelling experiences. Timing is everything, though.

The consumer VR market still has so much room to grow (VR headsets hit the 1 million unit mark just in 2017). That means there’s still plenty of time to get into branded VR storytelling on the ground floor. Brands that do so will get the early attention.

But rest assured that VR storytelling will quickly become a cluttered space. As more brands take part, it will be harder to stand out amongst other immersive experiences. Soon enough, only the best experiences will win consumer attention.

It may seem early, but now is the time to start thinking about how VR storytelling fits into your larger customer experience strategy. The reality is that VR storytelling is just one piece of a long-term digital transformation. And regardless of your industry, the key to success is first determining your readiness for this new technology.

Check out our free white paper, “Go Live” Is Just the Beginning, to learn more about how you can bring innovations like VR storytelling to life for your business.