Heatmaps and Hotspots: Can New VR Viewer Metrics Better Quantify Ad Campaign Success?

Today's article will be a bit different than my previous pieces on Virtual Reality, so I figured I'd go ahead and provide a disclaimer right up front: I don't consider myself to be an expert in data analytics or advertising. Rather, with this piece I'd like to introduce these subjects in the hope of encouraging curiosity, discussion, and perhaps even further brainstorming and research on some of the new ways in which immersive media can be leveraged to enhance or further inform our understanding of concepts like productivity, effectiveness, and efficiency.

Nearly all of my conversations with colleagues and clients involving marketing, advertising, and promotional Virtual Reality applications eventually wind their way to a discussion on what is, in essence, the crux of the commercial/enterprise VR matter: given how new the technology is and how little data we have to dissect, how do we quantify the business value of a Virtual Reality experience? It's a question that cuts right to the quick, and its usually a matter of seconds before any savvy client (no matter how enamored with your proposed experience) will want to have answered. With Virtual Reality, selling the excitement is easy; selling the actual product is an entirely different matter.

While the industry is only just learning to crawl before it can walk, run, or soar, the business importance of quantifying the effectiveness of Virtual Reality experiences has led to a number of early studies with significant findings. A July, 2016 Google study, for instance, focused on "action metrics" (shares, channel subscriptions, etc.) and found that a 360 ad drove 41% more user actions than its standard video counterpart. Similarly, in an October, 2017 research study video advertising company YuMe collected "key emotional response data" from experiment participants and found that VR advertising outperformed standard ads on an array of measures of emotional engagement.

Early findings seem to suggest that Virtual Reality offers a bright and lucrative future to brands and advertisers. While these and other research- and survey-based results are promising, they miss out on what I believe to be a crucial element of the VR's promise for advertiser: the natural characteristics inherent to 360 video and virtual reality offer an ability to quantify ad engagement and campaign effectiveness in a way that brands should find even more compelling.

Take, for instance, the simplest contrast between standard and 360 video that one could make: virtual (screen) real estate. While traditional video and photo media typically offer a fixed aspect ratio of about 2:1 (more realistically 16:9), 360 video and VR experiences nearly double the potential advertising real estate with an aspect ratio of 1:1 (for comparisons sake 16:16). To get ever-so-slightly more technical, a traditional 1920x1080 (16:9) resolution display offers brands a canvas just over 2 million pixels; a typical 360/VR experience at 1920X1920 resolution offers a mouth-watering 3.7 million glorious pixels. While suggesting that the relationship between advertising real estate and actual usable advertising space is 1:1 is clearly nonsensical, its easy to see that it does indeed increase advertisers' ability to squeeze in additional branding without overwhelming the viewer.

An even more exciting, albeit less immediately obvious, advantage naturally provided by 360 video and Virtual Reality lies in the entirely new set of user-interaction and viewing feedback data generated during the experience. Traditional video advertising, whether delivered on television, film, or online, offers no easy solution to quantifying a campaign's effectiveness at capturing or holding viewer attention. The advertisement or product placement can be served to the viewer, but it's impossible to know whether it's ever actually seen. Thanks to the inherently interactive nature of immersive media, however, 360 video and VR playback platforms offer a mechanism for almost immediate feedback on such a critical aspect of advertising success, most popularly taking the form of the VR "heatmap".

If you've ever been presented data displayed in heatmap form, you'll immediately recall the colorful blur of red and green blobs smeared across two (or more) axes. Even if you don't think you've ever seen a heatmap used for data analytics, you probably have; likely the most ubiquitous use of heatmaps is the weather radar we've all become accustomed to checking to determine whether we still have time to walk the dog before the impending nor'easter. While the usefulness of heatmaps as a technique to visibly display information reaches far and wide, for immersive media they serve as the visual representation of an absolute treasure-trove of underlying data. 

In addition to allowing viewers to look around and explore the scene, most 360 video and Virtual Reality content-delivery platforms (even free ones including YouTube) are collecting and storing this interaction data all the while. In essence, the platform is able to "play back" an individual's viewing of a scene and, over time and with a significantly large sample of views, aggregate the information into a heatmap showing which areas of the scene users gave the most (and least) attention both instantaneously and over time. The enormous value proposition found in these data is (I hope) immediately clear: brands advertising in immersive media will be able to extract real, quantitative data on campaign effectiveness, from the number of individual views of a within-scene product placement to the length of time viewers spend focusing on (and hopefully buying into) the brand. While there's no guarantee that VR advertising will necessarily offer a higher return-on-investment when compared to with more traditional platforms, this vast new source of data creates an opportunity for brands, agencies, and academic theorists alike to gain a greater understand of what works (and what doesn't) in the new frontier of advertising.

Given my arms-length relationship to the advertising industry, not to mention how recently these technological innovations have developed, I unfortunately can't offer any hard data on the effectiveness of Virtual Reality advertising. I do know, however, that the popular VR advertising platform Omnivert advertises a suite of some of the aforementioned analytics as part of its value proposition, so I assume that the analysis is already occurring and it's only a matter of time before the data and results are readily available. More than anything, I hope that this article encourages discussion, discovery, and exploration of what I find to be another fascinating and highly valuable reason to embrace the future of Virtual Reality today.

Musician, audio engineer, and entrepreneur, David Waltenbaugh has spent much of the last decade actively working with studios and clients in Richmond, Virginia on everything from recording and audio post production to business strategy and development. Most recently David has applied his interest, knowledge, and expertise in audio and media production to the worlds of Virtual and Augmented Reality through the creation of Media Plural, a digital media production and strategy company focusing on the capture, production, and implementation of spatial audio, 360 video, and other new forms of immersive media. Outside of the media industry, he has worked in investments for more than a decade. A (nearly) lifelong Richmonder, David holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in Economics from Virginia Commonwealth University.

David Waltenbaugh