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The full picture: What’s driving USA Today Network’s Get Creative immersive video strategy?

June 2, 2017 | By Peggy Anne Salz, Founder and Lead Analyst – Mobile Groove @peggyanne

Immersive video—powered by 360° cameras and 3D platforms—is poised to make a significant impact with audiences across devices. Indeed, the advance of and Virtual Reality (VR) changes all the rules, shifting the focus from reach as the measure of effective content and storytelling to depth. More and more companies are embracing VR to connect with people on a deeper level. A new video gold rush is on, as companies race to understand and integrate some form of mixed reality into their content and marketing strategies to move and monetize their audiences.

USA Today Network, which has become one of the most prominent VR content creators in the news business, is one company that doesn’t have to play catch up. Last year it claimed the pole position, launching the first-ever weekly VR news show. “VRtually There” is a collaboration between its editorial team and in-house agency, Get Creative. The intent is to create awareness for brands such as Toyota through content aimed to educate and inspire consumers.

Kelly Andresen, SVP, Head of GET Creative, USA TODAY NETWORK

Peggy Anne Salz—mobile analyst and Content Marketing Strategist at MobileGroove—caught up with Kelly Andresen, SVP and Head of USA Today Network’s Get Creative, to talk about the rules of immersive storytelling and the impact of VR on content, context and the consumer.

At one level, content has to be crafted to appeal to audiences, which means it has to valuable and relevant. But the advance of mobile and apps means content also needs to be more contextual. How do you manage both?

We see a range. At one end, it’s all about a 100% fully custom and bespoke approach. In those cases, we work with clients and their agencies to make recommendations on the best content to reach their audiences and their KPIs. But on the other end of the spectrum, we also see local clients who don’t just want to tell a compelling story to their customers and potential customers. They also need to drive immediate results like in-store traffic or ecommerce. In those cases, it’s about creating a context—and the right environment—for them to showcase their content and advertising message. So, in that case, it’s really about creating custom content, not branded content. It needs to provide an environment and a context where there the advertiser can showcase their specific advertising message or their unique proposition that will raise awareness of their brand and drive immediate action.

Contextual content for a local audience sounds like a good opportunity for local advertisers, which might not have the budget for content marketing,. They can piggyback” on the content you create and distribute….

Yes, but it is also a challenge for the industry as no one has really cracked local branded content at scale. Getting it right is expensive for these advertisers, and long approval processes don’t match what local advertisers need if they want to engage customers in the right time and place. It’s doesn’t fit the content of the individual. That’s where we have a unique opportunity because we are a network of 110 sites with actual physical locations, real journalists, and real connections to our communities across the U.S. This gives the infrastructure and the team to be able to create really unique solutions at an affordable price that will still drive results in the local markets. It’s an area I am going to be very focused on in 2017 as we work to build out a local branded content solution at scale.

We’re also focused on how can we revolutionize the model to help retailers tell great stories with content that also allow them to bring customers in-store. I’m particularly excited about our partnership with Walgreens, one of the nation’s largest pharmacies that also offers beauty products. They are pursuing a strategy to brand themselves as a destination for beauty products. This makeover extends to creating an entire content strategy. That’s where we’ve partnered to create original content in the form of photo galleries and 2D videos showing customers how they can “get the look” with products. Distribution of this content across all channels, including social, drives awareness of the brand. It also changes brand perception and drives calls to action including signups for the beauty program. It shows us how branded content and custom content can work for both local and national advertisers, in the right context, to move customers across all steps of the marketing funnel.

You have a multi-dimensional view of content, customers and context. You have also added virtual reality to the mix. How are you using it to tell stories that engage your audience – over a 115 million unique every month – and serve your advertisers?

The USA Today Network has taken a leadership position in the creation of high-quality premium virtual reality content, and we’ve been doing it for three years. That doesn’t sound like very long but that’s light years in the VR world. When I joined the company in 2015, the company had already made significant investments in the virtual reality space. For one, it requires a team of people who know coding and how to capture the content. It requires people who are familiar with the specialized 360° cameras, and more importantly: how to tell stories in this medium because it’s very different from any other medium.

I was fortunate to step in and build out a brand-new content studio, which has expanded to a full service in-house agency. It takes advantage of the learnings and expertise that existed in order to cultivate those same capabilities within our branded content studio. I hired people who had produced the award-winning VR and 360° video from our newsrooms to join our branded content team. Our value proposition going out to advertisers was about leveraging our knowledge to help them leapfrog and try out VR at an effective price. They also benefit from our ability to produce that content quickly and consistently.

The VR shows with Toyota are a milestone. What other VR content have you produced since?

We’ve produced original content for the 2017 Toyota Camry as well as original VR work with Google Nest. We’ve seen a lot of excitement and engagement around it. But what is unique about our offering is that we can not only create the content, we can also distribute it to an audience that is actively consuming it and looking for it because they have come to associate VR with our brand.

In theory, because VR is immersive, people can watch it for hours. How do you keep people engaged?

Number one is the storytelling. Number two is the tech. It may sound silly, but it comes down to small details, like where to put the camera, that make a big difference. For example, Honda has created the fastest two-seater in IndyCar racing. When we did the first shoot we fixed the 360° camera to the helmet. But then, when we saw this footage afterwards, it felt like you are floating above the race track instead of actually driving on the race track. It’s small things like where you place the camera make a huge difference in how the viewer experiences the content.

What is going to keep a viewer engaged? You have to give them the freedom to enjoy the content but the direction to get the most out of the experience. With 2D video you can direct viewers to look by where you put the camera. In 360 and VR, a viewer can look wherever they want. They can look up, they can look down, they can look around. So we’ve experimented with audio cues to help them look where they need to look in order to help the story along and make sure the viewer has an awesome experience.

That is about the technology, but the attraction of VR is also how it can create a sense of empathy…

We’ve seen that VR does that, which is why we believe it’s perfect for two main types of storytelling. One is transporting people. In this scenario, the content transports people to places they may never otherwise be able to experience, like the inside of a volcano or to the top of a high wire. They can experience the thrill of doing something they may never do in real life. The second is triggering emotion, empathy in particular. In this scenario, the content help tell a human story that enables people to  literally experience what life is like in someone else’s shoes. Those two storylines are what drives our VR production, because both on the editorial side as well as on our branded content advertising side.

It sounds as if VR – done well – is also a way to beat ad blocking. 

Ad blocking is a challenge for the content industry. But, at its core, it’s a call from consumers. They’re saying, “We want a better experience.” And I think this is a call to action for all of us to really deliver better experiences. So, yes, we are focused on creating better experiences for our audience, and our advertisers, and VR allows us to do this.

VR is in its infancy; it’s early days. What do you see as it matures?

We’ve all only scratched the surface of how we can use virtual reality as a storytelling medium. I can definitely see a future where, instead of sharing text or sharing photos like we do on social channels or even on our phones, we share whole virtual reality experiences. People can capture entire experiences and share them as content. We’re not there yet from a technical standpoint, but I do think I can see adoption and technology going in that direction. I also think we will see new kinds of interactivity. Experiences with brands and content companies will move beyond contests and quizzes. The next wave is all about enabling and empowering people to interact with brands and the content they produce to build deeper connections for both.-

Peggy Anne Salz is the Content Marketing Strategist and Chief Analyst of Mobile Groove, a top 50 influential technology site providing custom research to the global mobile industry and consulting to tech startups. Full disclosure: She is a frequent contributor to Forbes on the topic of mobile marketing, engagement and apps. Her work also regularly appears in a range of publications from Venture Beat to Harvard Business Review. Peggy is a top 30 Mobile Marketing influencer and a nine-time author based in Europe. Follow her @peggyanne.

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