Millennial News Publisher Circa Plans to Create Weekly Ad-Supported VR Spots

Service will eventually include custom content

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As more money flows to advertising startups chasing virtual reality and brands start creating custom content, publishers want in on the VR craze, too.

John Solomon, chief creative officer at Circa/Sinclair Broadcasting—the former exec from The Washington Times hired in December to revive the defunct news app—announced an ambitious VR news project for his fledging company during an Advertising Week panel on Wednesday. 

Since launching 10 weeks ago as a news and entertainment site, Sinclair-owned Circa claims to reach 350 million people and accumulated 140 million video views, with two million of those views coming from VR clips.

The new effort, dubbed Circa 360, will produce two weekly ad-supported VR pieces with production company MomentumXR. Solomon did not name any initial advertisers, but said that brands can run VR-shot pre-roll ads before clips. The web clips can also be used by 173 of parent company Sinclair Broadcast Group's local TV stations.

"It will take our consumers to places that journalists get to go but the public very seldom gets to go, maybe backstage at a debate, backstage at Hamilton across the country," Solomon said. "We think the regularity of producing two newscasts a week will train our journalists and also our audience to expect that experiential news is here to stay."

Solomon added that he eventually sees brands creating custom content that fits into the video itself. "As we get a little further down the road, we'll have an immersive advertising capability where you'll be able to create basically augmented reality ad spots—as you're wandering around you may see a gamified icon. [If] you click on it, it's an opportunity to get a Red Bull drink for 20 percent off."

In terms of video length, most of Circa's clips are about one-and-a-half minutes long and aimed at millennials, who are increasingly watching shorter content on their phones with an 80 percent completion rate.

"Our first four or five VR pieces were shot in the three to five-minute zone—people drop off at about two minutes," Solomon said. "Sixty-seven percent of our audience is under the age of 35. What we're learning is that short videos that hand off to each other—they have a purpose or a pathway to see other stuff but cut short—is probably going to be the experience that millennials want."

Mike Bloxham, svp of Frank N. Magid Associates, agreed that the stereotype that millennials crave short content is true, but also pointed out that they watch plenty of long-form content on smartphones.

"Millennials also watch entire football games on mobile TV," Bloxham said. "If the content is sufficiently compelling [and] the user experience is seamless enough, they'll stick with it."

To that point, Frank N. Magid Associates is forming a consortium of media and marketing players—including Turner, A+E Networks, Mastercard and Best Buy—to examine VR for marketers.

"At the moment that's less about measurement as it will be defined in the world of online," Bloxham said. "It's more about understanding consumer attitudes and behaviors, drivers and inhibitors to adoption, because we really need to get an understanding of those—whenever there's any kind of emerging medium, we get very excited naturally about the opportunities and the potential but what's going to prevent us moving forward as fast as we could do and trip us up?"

Still, Angel Mendoza, head of partnerships at IPG Media Lab, argued that brands aren't treating VR as a long-term strategy, making Circa's pitch to brands difficult.

"In 2016, we've seen a lot of brands have one-off experiments, a lot of one-off content, but there's no real strategy to it," he said. "You can't just create one piece of content and distribute it across all different devices—you have to understand behavior across these different screens and headsets and you have to actually put together an objective."

@laurenjohnson Lauren Johnson is a senior technology editor for Adweek, where she specializes in covering mobile, social platforms and emerging tech.