For the last decade, the experience economy has been hailed in marketing circles as a way to create relevant and meaningful experiences to enhance brand value (Pine & Gilmore, 1999). For example, if a person has a positive experience visiting a winery tasting room, they are more likely to purchase that brand of wine if they see it on the shelves of a wine shop or on a restaurant wine list. Visiting the vineyards, learning the backstory and tasting the wine serves as an immersive, participative experience leading to a greater connection and the formation of a relationship between the consumer and that particular brand of wine.
Although marketers focus more on measuring the outcomes in terms of sales instead of relationships, the process of building mutually beneficial relationships using experiences has its roots in PR. Public relations objectives typically focus on relationships – fostering knowledge, opinion or behavioral outcomes among well defined target public (Cutlip and Center, 2013), and many of these objectives are pursued through experience. Public relations practitioners are experts at designing experiences, such as service projects or site tours, to help publics gain knowledge about an issue, consider a new perspective, or form a relationship with an organization.
Today, advances in virtual reality (VR) have provided public relations practitioners with affordable options to provide experiences virtually. Dave Berkowitz wrote a piece for Advertising Age warning that 2016 won't be the year of VR. His pessimism was voiced in the context of providing individual VR experiences on people’s personal computers, and he lists a myriad of technical limitations. Those technical limitations do exist, but I disagree with the premise that VR has to be delivered in this way to be effective. Arrti Shah’s article, “The Intersection of Virtual Relation and PR,” illustrates how the outdoor clothing company North Face created a VR experience of a climb in Yosemite National Park for its shoppers at its retail outlets in New York and San Francisco. And in her article “Get the Most Out of VR,” (Marketing Magazine, 2015), author Rae Ann Fera shares examples of how the TV show "Sleepy Hollow" brought a VR experience to Comic Con where fans could experience being “beheaded” by the Headless Horseman, and then photographed for a sharable digital poster – making the physical connection bridge to their social networks.
Recently, a Wall Street Journal article raised the concern over the ethics and psychological and physical effects of virtual reality experiences. Yet, it is because VR experiences can be so potent, that they can also be so effective.
In their article, “A Comprehensive Socio-economic Model of the Experience Economy: The Territorial Stage" (2014), authors Guex and Crevoisier, remind us that experiences move us from the symbolic to the concrete, and this is the power of implementing a virtual reality in a public relations strategy. Imagine an organization that wants to preserve the rain forest taking attendees of a medical conference on a VR “on-site” tour of the rain forest to highlight plants recently discovered to have medicinal benefits. As public relations practitioners, we can likely think of many situations when we wished our publics could have a particular experience to help them to better understand a place, a situation, a perspective, or another culture. If we think beyond designing experiences to sell products, and consider how to foster understanding, what preconceptions or bias could we help to eliminate? Could we create virtual experiences that would help us better understand how it feels to be a bullied high school student, a wheel chair user navigating urban streets, a sexually harassed subordinate or a profiled minority?
Over a decade ago, Myron Krueger wrote in his essay “The Experience Society,” in MIT’s journal Presence (1993), that if the promise of the concept of virtual reality were fully realized, it would be a “culture-defining technology.” PR has a history of being a vital component to culture change, and this new technology has provided the tools to help PR take a leading role once again.
Juniper Research predicts 2016 will be a “watershed year” for VR, kicking off a steep incline over the next five years. To remain relevant and to foster better understanding for our organizations or clients, PR practitioners must explore how to design and incorporate virtual reality experiences that transform the symbolic to the concrete and the passive to the active.