Marketers, Don't Ruin Virtual Reality With Ads

Five Guidelines to Help Protect the VR User Experience

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2016 will be a pivotal year for virtual reality. While skeptics remain, many analysts and investors predict that virtual reality is on its way to becoming a mainstream platform. As the medium makes its way from headlines to homes, a content ecosystem will begin to coalesce, and so too will standards around virtual reality user experience, or VRUX (add that one to the buzzword bingo card).

VRUX is the totality of how a user will interface with virtual reality -- and it could make or break the industry. VRUX is a confluence of hardware, software, user interface and content. It will be shaped by variables like user goals, navigation conventions, session duration and hardware limitations, as well as storytelling standards, creative direction, even content position. After all, should users really have to spin around in a desk chair to view the entirety of a 360-degree video? Might 270 degrees suffice?

While the specifics of VRUX are still up for debate, one thing is certain -- advertising will invariably become a part of it. The extent to which advertising becomes part of VRUX depends in part upon the platform it's hosted on, but it's worth noting that there's a fairly predictable trajectory in terms of content monetization. Content platforms tend to start without advertising. As they gain initial traction, content marketing appears from a handful of progressive brands. Finally -- once the user base becomes large enough -- there's an inevitable shift to paid advertising.

Any virtual reality content platform will almost certainly follow this pattern of monetization, even if it's still a few years out. Mark Zuckerberg estimates that virtual reality needs between 50-100 million users before "it starts to be interesting as a business in terms of developing out the ecosystem." (read: before it can start generating substantial ad revenue). As virtual content gets gradually monetized with advertising, marketers need to ensure that the presence of advertising does not degrade VRUX. If brands and publishers oversaturate virtual reality with advertising, they risk souring the entire experience.

Historically, when a user experience becomes inundated with ads, some kind of solution appears and it's almost never good for marketers (pop-up blockers, DVR, etc.). Just look at what happened with the mobile web: As mobile advertising became increasingly prominent, it completely tarnished the user experience. In response, a slew of ad blockers appeared and threatened to upend the entire ad revenue model.

We need to begin proactively thinking about how to build a sustainable ad revenue model that balances the demands of publishers, advertisers and consumers. Otherwise -- when marketers come running with fistfuls of ad dollars -- advertising will be layered haphazardly onto virtual content, VRUX will suffer, and users will retaliate. Let's preempt a spoiled user experience, rather than apologizing for it.

Here are five guidelines to help protect VRUX as advertising gradually gets integrated into virtual reality:

1. Make ad placement predictable. Consumers should know when ads are coming, or else ads should simply be native. Either way -- no surprises. There are few things more jarring than a random interstitial ("Your content will load in 9 seconds, following this message from our sponsors") after a few minutes of uninterrupted browsing.

2. Don't oversell ad inventory -- exercise restraint. Publishers should not be selling ad placements in every single degree of virtual real estate. The temptation will be tough to resist as the user base grows and demand for ad placement increases, but there needs to be an upper limit to advertising in and around virtual content. Finding that upper limit will be crucial, since it must be high enough to sustain a business, yet low enough to avoid tainting VRUX

3. Keep performance a priority. Ads should not significantly bog down performance or load times. Speed will be an important tenet of good VRUX, if not the most important; don't jeopardize it with interactive, retargeted, ultra-high-def, 360-degree video ads, plus all their attendant scripts. And don't layer ads over the UI in ways that inhibit usability (as present-day mobile ads so often do).

4. Consider the user's privacy. As with any form of digital marketing, virtual reality advertising will face privacy issues and there is no simple solution. Marketers need to collect data, but it needs to be done mindfully. We need stringent standards to protect personal identifying information. We need to balance the amount and granularity of information collected against the general "creep factor."

5. Give consumers a choice. Consumers should have some degree of choice in terms of the advertising they receive. Consider taking a cue from GQ and asking users to pay on a per-content basis if they don't want to see ads. Alternatively, look at certain video streaming services that offer options during commercial breaks: watch two minutes of standard, passive ads, or interact with a particular ad for thirty seconds. These kinds of choices give users a modicum of control, which attenuates the inherent frustration of being interrupted with advertising.