Imagine a future where visiting virtual Disney World is not only more convenient, but also more thrilling than traveling to the actual location. This will be a time when flipping on your augmented reality glasses is a more common habit than checking your smartphone. And it may be here surprisingly soon.

I recently spoke with Daniel Norman, XR Solutions Architect at King Crow Studio. Norman’s background as a mobile-games developer and his current role designing virtual reality training software puts him at the forefront of the technological changes that will shape how people consume content.

And he’s thinking big: “One of the things that I envision for the future is no more computer monitors,” Norman says.

Facebook’s vision of the future is similar to Norman’s. Reality Labs, Facebook’s virtual and augmented reality division, employs 20% of Facebook’s workforce while accounting for only 3% of its revenue. The investment highlights Facebook’s belief that the worlds of gaming, social media, online retail and marketing will converge into a “metaverse,” essentially the virtual world the OASIS from Steven Spielberg’s “Ready Player One” made real.

Video games are already by far the most effective medium for capturing and holding the attention of a diverse audience. (In 2020, video games topped the combined revenue of sports and movies in North America.) Yet most content marketers do not think deeply about the behavioral principles that make gaming content so addictive. This means forward-thinking content marketers have an opportunity to get a leg up on competition and prepare for the future.

I have never had a boring conversation with Daniel, and this one on how virtual reality could change content marketing didn’t disappoint.

Know the Lingo

There are three key terms in this style of interactive content that are related, but not interchangeable.

  • Virtual reality (VR) refers to a fully immersive virtual experience. The OASIS is an example of virtual reality technology, but there are plenty of less “sci-fi” examples as well. For instance, Oculus Rift is a virtual reality headset because when you strap it on, it blocks real-world stimuli.
  • Augmented reality (AR) refers to a user experience that incorporates both virtual and real-world elements. Pokémon Go, the video game that enables users to “discover” Pokémon characters in real-life locations, is an example of augmented reality.
  • Extended reality (XR) is an umbrella term that encompasses AR, VR and everything in between.

Reward People for Engagement

Gaming companies employ legions of psychologists to understand exactly how to trigger the little dopamine hits that keep people engaged, Norman explains. “You have to constantly reward players, whether it’s with a sound, or a little message,” he says.

By comparison, marketing “calls to action” are all too often crude, last-ditch efforts, more like work than a reward. If content marketers really want to thrive in a world where users expect to be delighted, they need to think hard about how to make their content fun when they design marketing campaigns.

Develop a Great Story or a Great Mechanic

Games often revolve around a story with characters, plot and dialogue. Just as important, however, is the “mechanic,” or the action that the user needs to perform to advance, such as shooting bubbles that pop up on the screen.

While each is important, neither is essential, Norman says. Great games need to have either an engaging story or an engaging mechanic, but not necessarily both. Minecraft is an example of a game in which players carry out a mechanic (placing blocks), but they do not progress through a story in the traditional sense.

Marketers should apply these concepts to their content. If you have a great story or mechanic, you may not necessarily need the other. If you have neither, you should probably start again.

Understand the Degree of Difficulty

A core tenet of video games is that content should be easy to progress through at first and gradually get more difficult. Content marketers often violate this. Asking newcomers to your site to download a dense white paper and read the whole thing would be like throwing a gamer at the final boss before they’ve even learned the controls.

Be aware of exactly what you’re asking your audience to do, and make sure their early interactions contain regular affirmations of progress. It might take some creativity to accomplish this, but the engagement will be worth it.

“The lowest-hanging fruit for engagement in games or in training is a leaderboard,” Norman says.

Draw on Your Own Experiences with Games and VR Content

Hopefully, your mind is already starting to turn over the marketing possibilities of VR and gaming. For instance, imagine what industry conferences and product demos might look like once VR technology has been adopted more widely. While designing the technology may require experts, figuring out how to apply it is a task for all of us. Video game development and VR are not walled gardens, understood exclusively by a select few highly technical folks. The only experience that you really need to apply video game principles to your content is to have played video games or tried out a VR headset.

In other words, all those hours you spent rescuing Zelda, fleeing from zombies in Raccoon City and bopping mushrooms in Mario World were ideal training for the future of marketing.