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5 Lessons Learned: Creating a Marketing Course on Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

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This year marks ten years since the marketing world was rocked by the first iPhone with an “app for that” changing the way brands communicate and provide value for their customers. Today the world is changing again. Virtual reality, augmented reality, and mixed reality are transforming branded storytelling and marketing communications. Using augmented reality and virtual reality in marketing allows for a brand story that elevates the audience out of the flat screen and into a 360° surround-sound world. But better than that, it gives the audience a first-person perspective of the brand’s value proposition.

With augmented reality and virtual reality, the audience is not just watching. They are participating. They are creating a personal brand experience. And the trend of ‘user generated content’, sometimes a scary proposition to brand managers, is taken to a whole new level.

So how do marketers navigate this complex new world of augmented reality and virtual reality? And how do we, as industry leaders, make sure that the technology doesn’t become a dumping ground for marketing through annoying pop-up banner ads? How do we deter marketers and brands from using augmented reality and virtual reality as one-off novel parlor tricks, but instead as a truly integrated part of a brand service ecosystem?

An academic approach

I recently had the opportunity to develop and teach a new marketing course for West Virginia University’s Integrated Marketing Communications (IMC) master degree program. The IMC program, in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media, is a nationally-recognized, 33-credit, fully-online graduate program. Students from all over the world are able to take control of their graduate experiences — allowing them to accomplish specific personal and professional goals. Elective courses are constantly changing to meet the needs and mirror the trends of the industry.

IMC-693 Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in IMC was created with the mission of inspiring marketing ideas using augmented reality and virtual reality that provide value and utility to consumers. For me, it was exciting that West Virginia University would offer such a forward-thinking course.

I asked our Assistant Dean, Chad Mezera, for some thoughts on why the idea of an augmented reality and virtual reality marketing course was attractive to the university.

Chad Mezera
Assistant Dean of Online Programs for the WVU Reed College of Media
West Virginia University

“As rapid technological advancement continues to force evolution in the marketing communications industry, we wanted to incorporate augmented reality and virtual reality into our graduate program’s curriculum. Hopefully the marketing students involved in this course will create new opportunities to reach audiences and create meaningful content for the brands they represent. We are thrilled by the success of this inaugural offering of the course and look forward to offering it to more West Virginia University IMC students.”

— Chad Mezera

The new course started August 16, 2017 and ran for 8 weeks. Final projects were turned in just two weeks ago. Upon reflection and follow-up conversations with students, I wanted to share my lessons learned and give readers some perspectives from the marketing students themselves.

Lesson 1: Have passion for the subject

In June 2017, I had the privilege of speaking at West Virginia INTEGRATE marketing conference to share my passion for augmented reality and virtual reality technology. INTEGRATE is held every year to bring the student and professional marketing community together in a two day discussion of marketing trends and case studies.

My “IMC Transformation in the Era of Virtual Reality” presentation at INTEGRATE 2017

Any new course development always has the best intentions at heart. But it isn’t until the course is actually in front of students that its effectiveness can be analyzed. And for that to happen, I needed students.

I was told back in May that the class was going to be offered as an elective in the Fall 2017 term. I nervously kept checking the West Virginia University registration system to see if anyone would sign up. Is anyone as excited as I am about using augmented reality and virtual reality to move people along the customer journey? Is the technology too new? Too unproven?

My fears were unwarranted. I think my passionate talk resonated with the students. After all the hard work I did in creating the augmented reality and virtual reality marketing course, I was happy to see the list of students grow as we got closer to the start.

Lesson 2: Build it with career development in mind

Students had a variety of reasons for taking a marketing course on augmented reality and virtual reality, but most saw it as an opportunity to stand out in their companies or in job interviews. The students had little to no experience using or thinking about augmented reality and virtual reality technology prior to signing up. It was fun to see them experience virtual reality for the first time. One of their first assignments was just to play with 360° videos or 3D games on Google Cardboard and talk about their experience. The discussion board lit up with “aha” moments of how a simple paper box gave a window to a whole new world of virtual reality.

When you look like you’re playing but you’re actually doing your Virtual Reality homework research for school #IMC #WVU @GoogleCardboar

 — @DenisseLeon

But it wasn’t all fun and games. I wanted students to take away real-world capabilities to further their career. One of the course-level outcomes was for students to develop an integrated marketing proposal with augmented reality and virtual reality tactics for a client of the student’s choice.

Each week, students would write out their approach to a branded augmented reality or virtual reality experience for their client that employed utility, personalization, socialization, education, gamification or storytelling. Each experience was based on the augmented reality or virtual reality platform being discussed that week. And it had to align with the overall business challenge they had identified from their client research.

Megan Bayles
Public Relations and Communications Graduate Assistant, Reed College of Media
WVU IMC MS Class of 2018

Megan Bayles was one of the first students to sign up for the class. During the course, she wrote out ideas for the ULTA Beauty brand. The plan included an in-store HoloLens-enabled “swatching” application that allowed customers to match different makeup to their skin tones using mixed reality. Another feature of the experience was customers being able to immediately see all of the varieties in color options for a particular product.

“Technology is continually advancing, as are the channels of communication available to marketing communications professionals. If we are not aware of the latest technologies and channels of communication, our brands could fall behind in the marketplace. That being said, I though taking IMC-693 Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in IMC would help me to help my future employer grow and prosper. Also, I thought the addition of such an innovative class to my learning repertoire would help me stand out to potential employers.”

— Megan Bayles

Meredith Eddy
Graduate Assistant, Reed College of Media
WVU IMC MS Class of 2018

Another student, Meredith Eddy, created an integrated augmented reality and virtual reality campaign that aimed to help potential donors empathize with the needs of Habitat for Humanity International as part of their Solid Ground campaign. This included a booth experience that used social virtual reality to help a group of people work together to overcome the logistical and financial challenges of building a home for a needy family.

“I wanted to take a course on augmented reality and virtual reality because that’s where I could see my industry going. Already my boss and coworkers were looking into different applications of the new technology and I knew that I needed to familiarize myself with it or else I’d be left behind. Taking this marketing course allowed me to get updated on current trends and see where the technology could be used in the future.”

— Meredith Eddy

Lesson 3: Structure learning around platform accessibility and adoption

Throughout IMC-693, students were exposed to a variety of different branded campaigns that currently use augmented reality and virtual reality technology. As we know, not all consumers have access to the devices needed to experience content on these platforms. And there is confusion as to what virtual reality is, versus augmented reality or even mixed reality. Addressing this confusion was an important issue for me as I developed the course.

Therefore, the 8 weekly class topics were organized from most-accessible and available platforms such as tablet/smartphone-based augmented reality in early weeks, to the least-accessible platforms like Microsoft HoloLens in later weeks. Each lesson and assignment built on the capabilities offered as platforms got more sophisticated. This helped students keep the platforms and technologies straight in their minds as they went through the course.

Additionally, critical success factors such as accessibility, comfort, deployment and return on investment (ROI) were analyzed each week.

Denisse Leon
Creative Director, Dream City Church
WVU IMC MS Class of 2018

Denisse Leon created a marketing plan for Southwest Airlines which focused on an enhanced customer service experience for the business traveler through the use of in-airport augmented reality navigation and in-seat virtual reality storytelling.

“What makes this technology different from other marketing methods is the level of engagement that the audience can have when interacting with a brand. Unlike printed pieces or even digital or social methods, marketing with augmented reality and virtual reality has pushed the envelope by creating alternate realities that appear to be more seamless to what a person would experience in the real world. By doing so, it allows brands to integrate themselves as part of the daily life of the customer. But just like any other tool or approach, in order to ensure it is an effective one, marketers should not forget about how these tools support their original goal and target market. And of course, just like any other campaigns, analytics are king!”

— Denisse Leon

Lesson 4: Inspire an integrated marketing mindset

The main tenant of all courses in the IMC program at West Virginia University is an “integrated” approach to communications. I didn’t want students to approach the creation of these ideas as one-off tactics. Therefore, this marketing course stressed the need for comprehensive strategies that not only resulted in audience-centric augmented reality and virtual reality content, but deploying and promoting the content through established channels for optimal accessibility and exposure.

Stephanie Katcher
Founder ESK.solutions
WVU IMC MS Class of 2018

Stephanie Katcher’s marketing plan included augmented reality and virtual reality ideas for Booking.com. Ideas included a tablet/smartphone-based augmented reality application that allowed for street-level scanning of hotel availability, rates and accommodation features. The app then immediately connected the user to Booking.com’s existing reservation system for a seamless experience.

“The augmented reality and virtual reality experiences aren’t only about what happens inside of the hardware. The experience is extended through the orchestration of the promotion and deployment. Attention to detail should be given to the elements supporting the deployment and promotion of an augmented reality or virtual reality campaign, including the post-experience follow-up.”

— Stephanie Katcher

Lesson 5: Leave room for growth

I selected Robert Scoble and Shel Israel’s book The Fourth Transformation: How Augmented Reality & Artificial Intelligence Will Change Everything as the required reading for this augmented reality and virtual reality marketing course. The book gives a great overview of the current state of the use of augmented reality, virtual reality and mixed reality for marketing and enterprise. But as the authors recognize, the book reflects only a point in time.

As we have seen just in the past few weeks, companies such as Apple, Google and Facebook are continuing to innovate and release new augmented reality and virtual reality products. In fact, ARKit and ARCore were released during the term of the course. The flexibility of the online discussion boards in the West Virginia University’s IMC program allowed me to keep the lessons current by having students debate new developments in real time.

Teresa Compton
Web and Social Media Coordinator for Brightway Insurance
WVU IMC MS Class of 2017

Teresa Compton chose to create an augmented reality and virtual reality marketing plan for her employer, Brightway Insurance. She focused on the strategy of helping young people understand the ramifications of being underinsured. One idea included an HTC Vive virtual reality experience where the user takes on the persona of a fire or flood and wreaks havoc inside a home to personalize the costs and issues associated with rebuilding. She is inspired by what the future holds for such immersive technology.

“The biggest takeaway from the class, for me, is how augmented reality and virtual reality will converge with the IoT, digital fabrication, biometrics, etc. to create the future of how consumers interact with brands. Marketers should look ahead at how these and other emerging technologies intersect. They’ll fundamentally change the consumer decision making process in their industry.”

— Teresa Compton

Final thoughts

I admire the willingness of graduate marketing students to dive into the future with me. And I was inspired by the creativity and strategic thought these future leaders put forth each week.

In just a short 8 weeks, they mastered the ability to “think outside the screen” and provide useful branded experiences using augmented reality and virtual reality content strategies that align with business objectives. They can explain the value of integrating immersive experiences to enhance customer engagement. Best of all, they can lead companies through the critical success factors associated with these type of marketing efforts.

Beyond that, they have seen the future of communications and are armed with the skills for what is to come.

At any stage of your career, it is important to keep learning. In addition to IMC-693 Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality in IMC at West Virginia University, I am currently teaching IMC-641 Social Media and Marketing and will be teaching IMC-627 Healthcare Marketing in early Spring 2018.

For more information on the Integrated Marketing Communication online master degree program, visit the West Virginia University website.

If you would like a non-academic option, I am also a partner with the Transformation Group who has just started a series of live online courses for executives wanting to get smart on augmented reality and virtual reality for business and enterprise covering a wide range of industries.

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