“I am not really sure how to explain”: Marketing Augmented Reality Experiences to New Audiences

DOI: https://doi.org/10.33008/IJCMR.2021.36 | Issue 7 | Oct 2021

Matthew Freeman (Bath Spa University)


Abstract

If the immersive sector is to fully move beyond engaging the early technology adoptors and is to capture mass audiences from different corners of the cultural landscape, then gateway promotional content must be developed – that is, marketing that engages those new to immersive technologies. How, though, can the magic of 3D worlds be communicated via 2D media? Addressing this current industry challenge, the Immersive Promotion Design team was funded by StoryFutures Academy in 2020 to identify new promotional strategies for how virtual and augmented reality experiences can be better marketed to today’s audiences. This article outlines our approach to applying research into new ways of marketing VR/AR to a set of marketing materials we prototyped for Studio McGuire’s The Invited, a CreativeXR-funded experience that reimagines the story of Dracula with a pop-up book and AR technology. I also discuss the results of evaluating The Invited’s research-informed promotion on audience, outlining key learnings about how to communicate the magic of AR content to new audiences.

Introduction

‘I feel that, over time, we started to view reality as the poor cousin to our dreams, in a sense… I want to make the case to you that our dreams, our virtual realities, these abstractions that we enjoy and surround ourselves with, they are subsets of reality.’

– Christopher Nolan, 2015


As of 2021, the immersive sector has become synonymous with cutting-edge technology innovation, and the UK is internationally renowned for this kind of creative production. According to the Culture is Digital report commissioned by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, ‘immersive and augmented reality are changing the way in which we are able to experience the world around us, offering a particular opportunity as international demand is increasing’ (2018). Data shows that the immersive market is growing at a fast pace, reaching almost £100 billion in 2020, and yet questions still remain over the mass-market potential of Virtual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR) technologies.


As things stand in 2021, approximately 4% of UK internet users own a VR headset (Allen, 2021). Most of these headsets are ones involving a mobile phone (mobile VR or Google Cardboard) 1.7% of UK internet users are understood to own a high-end VR headset, including Oculus Quest, Oculus Rift and HTC Vive (ibid.). This means that over a million UK residents own a high-end VR headset (1,067,508 people). According to analysis firm Omdia, Oculus has a market share of 48%, meaning there are circa. half a million Quest Go and Rift owners in the UK. The UK data on Quest owners specifically is limited, but using various industry data sources, it can be estimated that 65% of these devices are Quests, meaning there are around 300,000 Quest owners in the UK (307,442 to be specific).


Altogether, such data, while encouraging, highlights the immersive sector’s struggle to break into the mainstream. According to research conducted by GlobalWebIndex in 2018, over 90% of UK and US audiences are aware of VR, with around 65% of these also saying they are aware of AR: ‘Awareness of AR hovers between the 70-75% mark among the 16-44 age group, but drops dramatically among 45-54s (56%) and 55-64s (44%). By gender, males (71%) display a notably higher level of awareness of AR compared to women (59%)’ (Buckle, 2018). Yet these awareness figures stand in sharp contrast to the rate of audiences who are actually consuming and engaging with AR and VR content on a monthly basis in the UK and US.


In response, the Immersive Promotion Design Ltd. team – a new marketing consultancy for the immersive sector that supports Virtual, Augmented and Mixed Reality creatives to better communicate with their audiences about the magic of immersive content – aimed to research, identify, create and evaluate new promotional strategies for how VR and AR experiences can be better marketed to today’s first-time audiences. ‘From both social and commercial perspectives,’ Catherine Allen writes, ‘we have to reach beyond those very important early adopters, and convince broader audiences that these magical, enriching digital experiences are simply too good to miss out on’ (2020). For as Catherine Allen and Dan Tucker (2018) also stated in the Immersive Content Formats for Future Audiences report: ‘We want to begin to establish a language that has not been directly imported from other forms of media, but instead is unique and bespoke to immersive content as an industry in its own right.’


For immersive media to be seen in its own terms, then, it needs its own terms – and that includes marketing, which has been identified as one of the biggest challenges facing the immersive sector (Brigante and Elger, 2020). The challenge is partly a creative one: how can the immersive sector communicate the value of VR and AR technologies to those who haven’t experienced them before? As famed VR director Mathias Chelebourg discusses:


‘It is really tricky, because how can you communicate immersion? In some ways we have the same problem that people from the theatre world have: how can you communicate the quality of a play by showing something that is so far away from the actual experience you are going to have? Current practice is to assemble sneak-peek videos, interviews; you have to be very hybrid. I think it is really hard to do; we are all trying to find a solution’ (2020).

Similarly, Aki Jarvinen, a Senior Experience Researcher at Digital Catapult, states that ‘immersive productions are challenging to market due to their experiential nature’ (2020). Until now, there has been a lack of research into immersive promotion, beyond analysing VR or AR as promotional extensions of other media, like film (see Janes, 2019). What is missing is an understanding of how we can design promotion for immersive content in the first place.


The challenge is also a cultural one: so much of today’s marketing for VR/AR experiences tends to be images of people (most often, it seems, men) in headsets or holding mobile phones. Likely because of such gendered imagery, audience research conducted by Limina Immersive in 2018 indicated that many audiences still conceive of the primary audience for both VR and AR in terms of stereotypical imagery, such as visions of futuristic or alien technology, far-off science fiction worlds and, most notably, an association with male-dominated gaming platforms. If the immersive sector is to truly capture mass audiences and become an equal to, say, streaming Netflix, then more gateway promotional content is needed – that’s to say, marketing that engages those new to immersive technologies.


Accordingly, in 2020, the Immersive Promotion Design team secured a small grant from StoryFutures Academy to tackle this current industry challenge of identifying new promotional strategies for how virtual and augmented reality experiences can be better marketed to today’s audiences. The research team comprised: Dr Matthew Freeman, Reader in Multiplatform Media at Bath Spa University; Prof Dinah Lammiman, a Creative Producer at the BBC and Professor of Immersive Factual Storytelling at University College London; Alison Norrington, Founder and Chief Creative Director of StoryCentral, a London-based entertainment studio that incubates transmedia properties; Naomi Smyth, a PhD Researcher in Immersive Technologies at Bath Spa University; and Catherine Allen, Co-Founder and CEO at Limina Immersive, a leading immersive media curation and consultancy company specialising in creative VR and AR. We aimed to address the following research questions:


  • Given the cultural and technological hybridity of VR/AR, how can the immersive sector develop promotional strategies that reflect this hybridity? What can be learnt from transmedia, film, video games and theatre?

  • How can the immersive sector broaden the audience for VR/AR experiences through new visual, linguistic and experiences approaches to promotion that guides its audiences towards and into the immersive environment?

  • How can the immersive sector produce promotional material that communicates both the magic of VR/AR and the unique sense of liminality, presence and embodiment at the heart of all good immersive experiences?


Method

In order to address these three questions, first we conducted desk research, including sector reports, consumption data and interviews with industry professionals, in particular those based in VR/AR production and digital marketing. We combined this desk research with academic literature reviews, spanning areas of immersive/emerging technology, promotion and marketing, and (trans)media communication. Alongside a systematic analysis of examples of VR/AR promotion that allowed us to gauge current promotional conventions across the UK immersive sector, we then categorised today’s technology-based immersive content, identifying key themes for understanding the unique value of these experiences.


From there, we drew on a large set of audience insight data about how audiences had responded to VR/AR experiences, and in particular what they articulated as most enjoyable and valuable, as well as how they articulated their emotional state post-experience. This audience insight data was provided by StoryFutures Academy, Limina Immersive and the South West Creative Technology Network, giving us a rich data set to work with.


All of this research informed promotional strategies and prototype marketing content for this article’s case study, Studio McGuire’s The Invited, itself a live R&D immersive experience, this time funded by CreativeXR in 2020. Finally, having created a full set of research-informed prototype promotional materials in partnership with Studio McGuire, we evaluated all of these promotional materials with real audiences. The evaluation occurred in two ways: firstly, via data recorded through engagement with sponsored ads on Facebook; and secondly, via an online survey conducted through Survey Monkey. The evaluation sought to understand what kinds of promotional content was deemed engaging.


Characterising Immersion

Understanding how to communicate immersive technology outside of immersive technology itself means moving beyond the technological and into these more narrative spaces. Author Kate Pullinger (2019) writes that ‘over the past several centuries, as printed books and, more recently, paperbacks have become more and more readily available, we have learned how to be immersed in a book to such a degree that the technology – the book itself – disappears’. Being focused on the technology around you is rarely immersive; in fact, it can be a barrier to immersion. Promotion for VR/AR technologies must recognise this fact. Rather than promoting the VR/AR itself as the central hook for why people should care, why not sell it as akin to getting lost in a wonderful book? Or to put it another way, developing unique marketing conventions for immersive experiences must first start with an understanding of what characterises immersive experiences, both in terms of aesthetics and engagement. The thinking here is that while VR/AR itself may be difficult to communicate to people who have not experienced it before, if we can understand the specific characteristics that make up VR/AR – and acknowledge what audiences most value about it – then it becomes possible to communicate those characteristics strategically and creatively in promotional material.


Our sector-wide audience insight into VR/AR audiences in the UK highlighted that what audiences value the most about these technologies is how they makes you feel. Specifically, that they feel real, provide a feeling of engagement, and that – if managed well with a duty of care – allow audiences to feel safe. Within this, we stripped VR/AR down to a set of characteristics, all of which emerged through a combination of audience insight and academic literature reviews:


  • Proximity, i.e., a sense of presence or feeling physically closer to something.

  • Scale & space, i.e., a sense of vastness or openness to the environment.

  • Directionality of sound, i.e., a directed or 360-degree use of sound.

  • Freedom, i.e., an experiential ability to find your own pathway through a scene.

  • Point of view, i.e., the audience’s precise role and surrogate position.

  • Totems, i.e., a personal, comfortable object that act like portal to another world.


As was also outlined in this Special Issue’s editorial, Duncan Speakman’s definition of immersive technology revolves around understanding VR/AR as ‘not just that you are “in” something’, but as that which ‘highlights, reveals or creates one or more of the multiple layers of things we are already immersed in’ (2020.). This echoes Jaron Lanier, one of VR’s most recognisable figures, who claims that through VR we are able to experience a broader range of identities and are capable of seeing the world in a more profound way (2017). It is this conception of reality that helps us to explain the characteristics of ‘scale & space’, ‘point of view’, and ‘directionality of sound’. Or to put it another way: immersion is equally about relationships between people and the world around them. All forms of media are likely to show us the world, or at least a representation of a world, but can it always show us as part of that world, shaped by our embodied interactions with others? It is this unique affordance of immersive media that helps us to explain the characteristics of ‘proximity’ and ‘freedom’. And as such, promotion for immersive technologies must communicate the experiences enabled via these technologies as a dialogue between the virtual and the real.


The idea that immersive technologies represent a paradigm shift from the mechanics of storytelling to ‘story-living’ has been well-discussed, but sometimes such immersion comes at a cost. As the South West Creative Technology Network (SWCTN) research found in their immersive audience findings: ‘The impact of immersion, especially for new audiences, generates a requirement to manage the experience, both as a duty of care and as a responsibility to represent the potential of a new medium’ (2019). Many audiences will be apprehensive about being asked to immerse themselves in a new technology – an apprehension that may come from the duality of occupying two spaces at once. As Allen (2016) explains, ‘there is a great mental and physical transition that users go through to submit to a VR experience. Studies have shown that participating in something that warps your sense of reality engages the parts of your brain where memories are created’. For Anagram, too, a multi-award-winning female-led creative VR company, ‘most projects made for VR … imagine that an audience is always ready to make the leap of imagination – to let go. But the audience often feels a dislocation, and does not want to submit to an unfamiliar immersion’ (Rose, 2019). This desire on the part of immersive audiences to be passive or active helps us to understand the characteristic of ‘totems’, which is a technique employed by Sharon Clark in her immersive theatre work to help alleviate the apprehension that audiences feel when being asked to immerse themselves in a new technology. A totem, in this context, is a physical object, something carried or held by the audience member. This object helps to make audiences feel comfortable as they become part of the immersive performance. When the totem reacts or does something unexpected, the audience moves safely into that immersive space – essentially, they act like portals to another world.


StoryFutures’ evaluation (Whittaker, 2019) revealed that these five characteristics of ‘proximity’, ‘scale & space’, ‘directionality of sound’, ‘freedom’, ‘point of view’ and ‘totems’ were in fact the most memorable for audiences. As such, we can think of these five characteristics as the main affordances of both VR and AR that should be communicated to audiences. All of these characteristics can be grouped as per the illustration below (Fig.1). And so when developing a promotional strategy based on these five characteristics, VR/AR creators can think through ways of showing what ‘freedom’, ‘proximity’, ‘totems’, etc. might mean in the context of their VR/AR experience’s subject and theme. The next section outlines our approach to applying this thinking to the promotion of The Invited.


Figure 1: Diagram – Immersive Characteristics


Case Study: Studio McGuire’s The Invited

Studio McGuire are multi-award-winning multimedia artists, renowned for their idiosyncratic experiments in digital projection and storytelling. The Invited reimagines the classic story of Dracula with a pop-up book augmented by AR technology serving as a conduit for Dracula’s reincarnation. Set in a dark, secret location, such as a shipping container, a book and a digital tablet together summon one audience at a time through an unsettling 20-minute experience in which each page turn reveals an exquisite kirigami world and a new set of broody holograms. The Immersive Promotion Design team partnered with Studio McGuire in order to test to what extent our characteristics of immersive experiences could be translated into a set of research-informed promotional materials for The Invited, and to evaluate these on audiences.


Where, then, did we start? Our background research suggested that VR and AR are not markedly different in terms of current sites of audience engagement: both technologies are most popular in the home amongst younger audiences, and, pre-pandemic, at least, both VR and AR are most commonly consumed outside of the home amongst audiences over the age of 25, a statistic that likely reflects the headset manufacturers’ current marketing approaches and the success of the video gaming audience (Freeman, 2021). While the market for temporary events, installations, art galleries and museums predicated on AR technology is currently small, research also indicates that there is a small but thriving market for temporary events, installations, art galleries and museums predicated on VR technology (ibid.). As such, and in order to attempt to broaden the audience for AR experiences, it was key to promote The Invited with the aura of magical worlds​ that audiences may associate with VR, albeit communicating the power of AR to reveal layers of magic hidden within our own world.


Our prototype campaign, titled ‘Visible to Some’, centred around the notion that Count Dracula was never just a story, but a warning from the pages of history about the evils that plague all our lives. The campaign sets up a central mystery about what Dracula needs to bring himself back to life, with the promotional materials luring audiences in through four phases of immersion: seeing, revealing, entering and becoming. These four phases of immersion are based on theoretical conceptions of levels of immersive engagement (see Ryan, 2016; Westling, 2020) – the thinking being that immersion is a scale, with seeing representing the lowest level of immersion and becoming representing the highest level. The original theme of Bram Stoker’s Dracula – that we need both contemporary science and ancient knowledge together – is reimagined across our campaign as the answer to its central mystery: that is, the secret to Dracula’s reincarnation is hidden inside the world of kirigami, and those secrets are only truly visible via the lens of the technologies of our modern world.


Walkthrough of our campaign, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021


'Seeing'

In some ways, the entire promotional campaign is therefore an attempt to manufacture ‘the capacity for immersive technologies to reveal things you cannot see’ (SWCTN, 2019) as marketing materials suited for the themes of The Invited. First, we created social media posts for a now-closed Facebook page (‘DraculaImmersed’). Altogether the social media is focused on the first of our immersive phases – seeing – with content setting up the mystery of what Dracula needs in order to bring himself back to life. We adopted the logic that the immersion afforded through the act of seeing is best characterised as akin to being immersed in a great book, hence our captions are based on the evocative language of Bram Stoker’s Dracula novel, notably quotes that hint at the campaign’s central mystery. Examples included: ‘To rid the earth of this terrible monster we must have all the knowledge and all the help which we can get.’ ‘I want you to believe... to believe in things that you cannot.’ More instructional captions inspired by immersive theatre were also used: ‘Be summoned inside the exquisite kirigami world of The Invited, where every turn of the page, flick of the light and gasp of your breath brings Dracula closer to the world of the living. Dracula was never just a story…’


The social media content adopted a cultural semiotics approach to experiment with ways of communicating the likes of ‘freedom’, ‘proximity’, and so on. Cultural semiotics is a research field that aims to understand culture from a semiotic perspective and as a type of human symbolic activity based on the creation of signs that, through their cultural context, give meaning to everything around us. For example, taking a cultural semiotics approach, the following images were found to effectively communicate immersive ‘proximity’.



Meanwhile, the below formed our approach to communicating immersive ‘scale & space’.


And the below imagery became the basis of our approach to communicating ‘point of view’:



The actual Facebook videos allowed us to experiment with sound, too, with the fluttering of bats coming in and out. Below is a sample of the social media GIFs we posted on the ‘Dracula Immersed’ Facebook page, where again the aim was to experiment with immersing audiences through visual characteristics of seeing, like ‘proximity’ and ‘scale & scale’.


'Revealing'

Next, we built a full website for The Invited that the Facebook followers were pointed towards and which was designed to continue to guide audiences through an immersive journey. The website is structured according our four immersive phases – see, reveal, enter, and become. The aim of the website in research terms was to experiment with ways of communicating the second of our campaign’s immersive phases – revealing. For example, as well as featuring a trailer for The Invited, which we produced (see below), visitors to the website are invited to learn more about the AR experience by delving into the secrets of Dracula’s imminent reincarnation, with hidden riddles, animations and QR codes all revealing parts of the Dracula myth, and all revealed by the lens of a digital technology.


Prototype trailer, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021


Below is a sample of the content created for our Invited website, as well as a walkthrough video that showcases the pages of the website in action. Note how all of this content, be it through imagery like eyes, portals or mirrors, or language, foregrounds the notion of revelation, and thus positions AR technology as that which ‘reveals things you cannot see’ (SWCTN, 2019). Thus all links to Speakman’s definition of immersive media as that which ‘highlights, reveals or creates one or more of the multiple layers of things we are already immersed in’ (2020).


Website walkthrough, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021



'Entering'

The third phase of the campaign, formed around the immersive concept of entering, aimed to explore creative ways of guiding audiences into the actual experience of The Invite. This phase’s marketing was, in effect, the bridge between the initial marketing channels and choosing to sign up for the experience. More importantly, we wanted to ensure this third phase of promotional content focused on reassuring audiences while still representing the potential of the AR medium. Given that much of our promotional content thus far had been rather conceptual, i.e., mystery-orientated, visual and thematic, it was important to be more explicit about what, exactly, The Invited is, and what, exactly, audiences would be expected to do. As outlined earlier, some audiences are likely to feel apprehensive about participating with a new technology and ‘submitting to an unfamiliar immersion’ (Rose, 2019).


As such, we produced a mixed-media invitation letter for The Invited, taking the form of a print invitation that is delivered through the post in an origami-style bat sleeve (Fig.2). The invitation was sent to people who registered their interest on the website, with the role of the invitation to reassure audiences ahead of taking that unfamiliar leap into an immersive world. This reassurance took the form of a video letter, which is accessible by scanning a QR code on the invitation letter. The video letter, written as if by the hand of Count Dracula himself, provides more explicit detail about what the experience of The Invited will offer, and what will actually happen: ‘You came, willingly, into my world, and accepted my invitation. Welcome.’ ‘A sea of wonders awaits. One by one, over 20 haunting minutes, you will doubt what you feel, fear what you reveal, and may become strange things, which you must confess, even to your soul.’ Notably, the video letter gives audiences a more literal sense of what the AR experience will actually be like, with animated bats and filters used to mimic the look of augmented reality. The video letter is devised as a kind of totem in the way envisaged by Clark (2019), with the role of the user’s mobile phone – a personal, comfortable and familiar object – reassuring the user and acting like a portal to another world. What’s more, it establishes ‘the potential for a new dialogue with an audience, as an individual’ (SWCTN, 2019) by solving the mystery of what Dracula needs to resurrect: ‘The true secret of his return – MY return – rests in the marrying of the old – the exquisite pages of a kirigami book – and the new – the everyday technology of your modern world. Always, Count Dracula.’ In other words, it is the role of the user and their devices that are part of the unfolding of the story – something that is key to understanding VR/AR as new possibilities for story-living.


Mixed-media invitation letter, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021


'Becoming'

For the final phase of our marketing, formed around the immersive concept of becoming, we wanted to create a form of promotion for The Invited that, outside of the experience itself, provided the opportunity for audiences to become fully immersed. This raises the question: if immersive indeed represents a unique emerging medium, then what is unique about its promotion and marketing? If immersive is best distilled into its magical ability to provide new ways of seeing the world around us, then surely what makes VR/AR promotion unique as a marketing form is that it can start before the experience begins and continues long after it ends. In other words, why not use the promotion for a VR/AR experience to keep people feeling immersed, just as it aims to guide people towards and into a state of immersion?


By way of example, Coney, an interactive theatre-making group, are experts at engaging audiences before and after live theatre shows through digital technologies. Coney’s approach posits that an immersive work starts when you first hear about it and it does not finish until you stop thinking about it. It is about taking audiences on a journey where, in this case, the VR/AR content is only one component of the immersive experience. Conceiving of immersive promotion as that which begins before the experience starts and ends long after it ends means that the promotion itself becomes immersive, regardless of the technology used, in the sense that it surrounds people and interacts with their daily lives for an extended time. On a psychological level, too, research tells us that VR/AR can have a lasting emotional impact on how we see, feel and remember (Milk, 2015; Jung et al., 2016; Quesnel, 2018).


So, in order to allow experiencers of The Invited to continue to feel like they are psychologically immersed in the Dracula storyworld, we experimented with post-experience mementos that aimed to bottle people’s mood change and rekindle their memory of feeling immersed. Our audience evaluation – to be discussed shortly – showed that post-experience mementos have the potential to form ‘real extended realities’ for people.


The idea, then, was that having experienced The Invited, audiences would be given a post-experience memento that aimed to bottle their sense of mood-change and rekindle their memory of feeling immersed within the experience. To do so, firstly we produced a kind of thank-you video that aimed to bottle the specific mood-change of The Invited in a single image, with the experience’s AR assets bleeding into the real world. Secondly, we created an AR filter that aimed to rekindle one’s memory of being inside the world of The Invited, with the AR filter allowing the user to go back inside its kirigami world. Together, the thank-you video and the AR filter were our team’s attempt to promote a core message at the heart of VR/AR: that it can show us as part of an immersive world, shaped by our own embodied interactions, and that it ‘becomes part of an ever-evolving toolkit for content producers to extend the potential of the experience (SWCTN, 2019). Both of these materials are below.


‘Thank-you’ video prototype, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021


AR filter prototype, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021


Audience Evaluation

In order to evaluate what worked about our promotion and what was less effective, we tested it on over 4500 people. The evaluation was completed (i) via sponsored Facebook posts for our social media content, tracking which images encouraged people to click through to the website, and (ii) via an online survey, which evaluated three key questions:​

​​

  1. Which of our Facebook videos, each experimenting with different research-informed ideas of how best to communicate AR, were clicked the most? In particular, how did engagement with certain kinds of posts correlate with different demographics?

  2. Based only on engaging with The Invited website, to what extent were respondents clear about what The Invited actually is, and specifically that it is an AR based experience based on a kirigami book?

  3. What is the relationship between respondents’ current engagement with VR/AR and the extent to which our promotional content primed their interest in The Invited?

​Respondents were all based across the UK, of various ages (16-75+), a fairly equal mix of male (48%) and female (52%), all of whom were from a range of different professional backgrounds, and with very different levels of familiarity with immersive technologies.


Overall, the 55-64s were by far the most engaged demographic in terms of clicking on our sponsored Facebook posts, which reinforces the perceived sector trend that AR experiences are most commonly consumed outside of the home by audiences over the age of 25 (Freeman, 2021). In fact, the posts that provided a more literal, explicit look at the kirigami book itself were engaged with exclusively by people over the age of 45, with 50% over 65.


However, the use of animated elements, filters and digital layering techniques helped to skew the appeal towards younger and more diverse age ranges, albeit mostly to men. Meanwhile, static images generally failed to appeal to audiences under 45, perhaps due to their black and white nature, although these images did engage both genders equally.


The importance of taking a hybrid approach when marketing an AR experience cannot be emphasised enough. For example, a post showing animated digital bats flying over the kirigami book (see ‘Facebook Post 1’ above) appealed to younger men but also usefully conveys digital media, while an image of a women trapped inside the experience’s kirigami castle (see ‘Facebook Post 2’ above) appealed mostly to women over 45 and usefully signalled immersive theatre. As a result, our central poster image for the campaign was the result of iterative audience testing: when we put these two images together, this poster (Fig. 2) had a 20% click rate as a sponsored Facebook ad and attracted a highly diverse audience (54% men and 46% women), ranging from age 16 to 65+, broken down as follows: 18-24s (18%), 25-34 (10%), 35-44s (16%), 45-54s (12%), 55-64s (36%), and 65+ (8%).


Figure 2: The Invited poster image, produced by Immersive Promotion Design, 2021


Since our intention with The Invited had been to take a more abstract or metaphorical approach to communicating AR (i.e., not explicitly mentioning ‘AR’ until much later into the campaign), we asked respondents whether it was clear from our promotion what The Invited actually is, asking them to provide a description of what they expected it to be based on our website and its promotional content. Overall, 64% of respondents stated that they felt clear about what The Invited is. And they were all loosely correct, using one or more of the following phrases in their description of what they expected The Invited to be: ‘technology experience/new technology’, ‘interactive’, ‘immersive/augmented reality’ or ‘takes you into the story of the book’. Of the remaining 36% who were less clear, the most common cited descriptions of what they expected The Invited to be were: ‘a game’, ‘a film’ or ‘a graphic novel’. Interestingly, the vast majority of the 64% of respondents who felt clear about what The Invited is were aged between 35 and 55. It was respondents either below or over this age that tended to assume that The Invited was a game, a film or a graphic novel.


Finally, in terms of the relationship between respondents’ current engagement levels with VR/AR and the extent to which our promotion primed their interest in The Invited, all respondents were asked which of the following technologies they use on a regular basis: VR, AR, immersive audio, and filters on your mobile phone. Of those respondents who regularly use all four of these immersive technologies, 68% stated that our website had ‘definitely’ intrigued them enough to want to experience The Invited when it launches. 20% of this group answered ‘kind of, but I would need to know more’, with the remaining 12% stating that they would not experience The Invited based on our promotional website.

Of those respondents who regularly use one or two of the aforementioned technologies, 50% stated that our promotion had ‘definitely’ intrigued them enough to want to experience The Invited, 33% answered ‘kind of’, with 17% answering this question negatively. Of those respondents who have never used any of the aforementioned four technologies, 31% stated that they felt persuaded to experience The Invited based on our website, 59% were intrigued but needed to know more, with just 10% of this group answering negatively.


Conclusion

Current approaches to marketing immersive technologies are typically based on imagery of people in headsets or pointing smartphones – imagery that fails to capture wider audiences not already familiar with these technologies or do justice to the magic of immersive media. Creating more accessible, audience-widening marketing for VR/AR must start with an understanding of what these technologies do best. Moving beyond the arguably more superficial or short-term appeal of the technology itself, I argue that VR/AR can be distilled down to three ‘promises’ it makes to audience, offering: (i) a new way of seeing the world, (ii) a new way of connecting with other people, and (iii) a unique personal experience.


These promises certainly formed the heart of the Immersive Promotion Design team’s approach to its R&D campaign for Studio McGuire’s The Invited . In summary, our research-informed promotional content was most successful on people already somewhat familiar with AR technologies, though our content still influenced 31% of respondents with no prior engagement with any immersive technology. In fact, an overall analysis of our work highlighted that the decision to not using tech-specific language in the initial marketing material, i.e., not using the term ‘AR’, opened up audience engagement by up 40%, as long as this kind of tech or platform clarity was provided to audiences in the later marketing.


When analysing the audience data a little more closely, professional background was also a key influencing factor: for example, of those respondents from the education sector, 78% responded favourably to our promotion, while those from the arts, culture or media sectors were equally positive. Interestingly, however, those based in the technology sector were least likely to want to experience The Invited based on the promotion we produced, and familiarity with VR/AR technologies had very little bearing on our respondents’ enthusiasm levels, nor was it a major reason for why people were not interested in The Invited.


All of which suggests that our experiment with creating new ways of marketing AR has made important progress, particularly in terms of understanding not just how audiences value it, but also how to effectively translate what are largely emotional values into tangible promotional visuals or language choices. The immersive sector has an enormously long way to go before its VR/AR experiences are perceived by audiences as sharing the same kind of accessibility that we associate with being immersed in a good book. But steps are now being made to make immersive a more inclusive medium (see Allen, 2020), and our research points to the need to establish a new promotional language for this world, one that supports VR and AR creatives to better communicate with their audiences about the magic of immersive content.


Acknowledgements

This research was funded by StoryFutures Academy through the Train the Trainer programme (Grant Ref: AH/S003622/1). A special thanks must go to Davy and Kristin McGuire for their collaboration, partnership and support during the research process.


References