Immersive Advertising Is the Key That Unlocks the Attention Economy

Online advertising fatigue has become deeply ingrained among everyone, especially younger demographics

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Immersive advertising isn’t just a game anymore.

That’s true on several levels since the drive to “immersion” in media intersects with several trends upending the advertising landscape. There’s the slow death of cookies and the rise of artificial intelligence, both of which are poised to reduce search-driven impressions. And as content owners and publishers view subscriptions as the best revenue driver, there’s a recognition for the need to give users a reason to spend more time on gaming sites.

The immersive ad format, as leveraged by the likes of Roblox and Snapchat, is typically known for infusing in-game marketing with multidimensional uses of virtual reality, augmented reality or mixed reality (or “spatial computing,” as Apple coined the term in its preview of its headset during the company’s development conference in early June).

And at a time when consumers have collectively said “enough!” to the bombardment of targeted ads, a proven ability to attract rather than pull people to your marketing messages appears to be the best road to take as digital ad growth slows.

For many brands and agencies, Roblox and Snapchat have been lighting the path to immersive experiences for years. The first real sign that major marketers were ready for the “full immersion” occurred when Walmart explored the metaverse with Roblox for six months last year. The immersive experience they collaborated on was dubbed Walmart Land, which lived inside the gaming platform’s virtual city-state, Livetopia.

The bellwether retailer put real dollars inside Livetopia which paid off, with the Roblox metropolis garnering 2.5 billion visits and more than 31,000 active users.

Meanwhile, Snapchat has been making steady advances in defining immersive advertising. At a time when TikTok’s stance as the primary social media attraction for younger consumers and the brands that want to reach them had begun to look increasingly precarious, Snapchat is now poised to recapture some of its early promise in this shifting landscape.

At the moment, Roblox is spearheading new forms of creativity by inspiring greater experimentation with immersive experiences by dominant advertisers.

Immersive grows up

While children’s media advocates criticized the commercial appeals to children manifest in the Walmart presence, Roblox has since shifted to attracting 17-to-24-year-olds. Roblox saw that group grow by 33% year over year, according to its February earnings report, which added that this demographic comprises 22% of all its users. (Overall, 55% of Roblox users are older than 13.)

As Roblox and other platforms continue to attract more grown-up consumers, the numbers for immersive advertising reflect that appeal: immersive display ads saw an increase in brand recall by as much as 70% and conversion rate by up to 80%, according to a Feb. 2023 analysis by streaming app platform CamOn. This is because Immersive Display Ads greatly improve the online shopping experience which leads to a higher chance of purchase.

Beyond Roblox, Apple’s forthcoming $3500 Vision Pro headset has been described as a potential “game-changer” in the space despite the exorbitant price. Whether it’s an immediate hit or a bomb, Apple’s big bet on mixed reality is sure to spur the move into this territory.

What’s so immersive about it?

Immersive advertising is a type of ad unit that invites consumers to engage with a product or marketing concept directly within the ad, all in real time.

Typically, immersive ads incorporate 3D visuals. Examples can be found through those “anamorphic billboards” featuring 3D optical illusions, which have lately transformed out-of-home advertising. More commonly, though, users have encountered 3D advertising via virtual reality headsets, such as in a gaming environment.

These ads can also rely on augmented reality mobile apps, which layer digital animation on top of the user’s “real” physical world. Think Niantic’s Pokémon Go game and Snapchat filters that present mixed reality interactions.

The idea is that the viewer feels like they’re inhabiting a fantasy world—or one that blends fantasy and reality simultaneously and interactively. But the one thing that separates immersive advertising from other forms of passive, if technologically advanced, marketing is that it depends on the active participation of the consumer.

The metaverse branding issue

The metaverse and other web3 concepts have been the target of incessant derision the last few months, as much-hyped projects by Meta and Disney were derailed in by inflationary pressures mixed with shareholder impatience over a lack of tangible uses.

The metaverse concept has suffered some branding issues as a result. It was no surprise that Apple eschewed the word during its Vision Pro demo, when executives described its new system as spatial computing to avoid any advanced naysaying following the rejection of the metaverse as an overarching digital/physical realm. A part of it was a hurried, often ad hoc approach.

There was too much reliance on expensive VR headsets, for one thing. While Apple’s initial device is pricey, it’s worth noting that the first iPhone arrived with comparative sticker shock before consumers priced it in and brands got on board.

Attention-getting use cases have tended to be aimed at a more upscale audience, like the 2021 collaboration between Gucci and Roblox. The big news was that a virtual Gucci Dionysus handbag sold online for 350,000 Robux — the Roblox equivalent of $4,115. In the “real world,” that same bag was a relative discount, selling for $700 less. Examples like that set negative coverage as the economy became more uncertain.

But more recently, Nike and Tiffany & Co.’s cross-promotion sneaker drop indicated that high-profile branding and hybrid digital/physical marketing can do more than capture social media buzz. At this moment, the term “metaverse” has been eclipsed by Apple’s coming “spatial computing.” But the Nike x Tiffany collaboration exemplifies the commercial potential of virtual product by using a NFT’s as a loyalty currency that pays in both digital and physical environments.

The social media excitement generated over Nike Air Force 1 Low Tiffany & Co. “1837” (aka “Air Force 1”) connected sneakerheads with the fashion, design and retail worlds. It appeared to be a turning point for web3-based marketing that immersive advertising is such an inherent part of.

You can’t force engagement

Brand powerhouses like Nike and Tiffany recognize the need to move on from reliance on ad units that interrupt online and offline activities.

To these marketers, the promise of immersive advertising is clear: invite direct, emotional connections between brands and consumers and don’t get in the consumer’s way with interruptions that annoy instead of inspire.

Snap’s statistics bears that out. Using smartwatches to pinpoint survey participants’ “neurological reactions” to immersive experiences from AR, Snap found that it can predict consumer behavior and business outcomes with “80% accuracy.” It’s a bold claim. But given the current “either you’re in it or you’re not” state of immersive advertising, Snap’s claims hold up.

Out of immersive

Immersive advertising’s appeal to marketers is due to several factors converging across media right now: online advertising fatigue has become deeply ingrained among everyone, especially younger demographics.

Gradual cookie deprecation and ad blockers have rendered traditional ad formats less valuable. As if that weren’t enough, digital advertising measurement challenges continue to be exacerbated by bots.

Conversely, these issues have forced marketers, agencies and publishers to ask how to measure engagement relative to other metrics. Advertisers and agencies are partnering with attention-tracking vendors to find solutions, but that may be a ways off. The gaming world has always presented unique barriers to effective advertising, though players like Roblox and major brands are assiduously trying to measure in-game advertising’s clear impact.

Meanwhile, the immersive format has begun to infiltrate other forms of advertising, including one of the old types of mass communication.

For years, analysts have been warning that digital media was a “push” format like the first four decades of linear TV. In the past, advertisers could interrupt the programming. But brands’ ability to access “attention-on-demand” is long gone.

As Cathy Oh, global head of marketing for Samsung Ads, has noted, gaming’s gains are only starting to influence brands. But the potential is being realized that for advertising to truly “work,” it needs to be part of the show. Immersive ads are the next big show.