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Virtual Empathy: How 360-Degree Video Can Boost the Efforts of Non-Profits

5 minute read | May 2017

Ever since the revolutionary 360-degree video documentary Clouds Over Sidra debuted and helped drive donations to UNICEF, other non-profit organizations have followed suit. From Oxfam to PETA, a wide range of charities have used virtual reality (VR) videos as a way to literally immerse viewers into the cause, tug at their heartstrings and hopefully get them to open their wallets.

But how effective this 360 content is in regard to comparable measurement of behavioral and attitudinal impact has largely been absent from the public conversation.

Ahead of Nielsen Global Impact Day, an annual day of service in Nielsen communities around the world, Nielsen conducted a pro bono analysis to help nonprofit organizations make better use of this emerging technology as they engage audiences. Since 2012, Nielsen has pledged to deliver at least $10 million each year through pro bono and in-kind contributions.

“Specifically, we took on this study to uncover answers to three questions,” said Harry Brisson, Director of Lab Research at Nielsen. “We sought to understand the charitable behavior profile of VR audiences, the effectiveness of 360 video compared to more traditional forms of advertising, and the content characteristics that drive donations and other desirable measures for charities.”

Last year, a Nielsen analysis found that roughly one in four U.S. consumers between 18 and 54 identified themselves as likely to use VR technology in the coming year. At the beginning of this month, however, Nielsen expanded on this with a second study of more than 1,000 U.S. consumers 18-54 to more deeply examine the charitable behaviors and attitudes of potential adopters of VR, or PaVRs for short.

The survey results found that PaVRs were more likely to act on a number of behaviors in the next month, including donate to a charity (57% vs 51%), volunteer at a non-profit (43% vs 34%) and contact a government representative (22% vs 16%). This group was also more likely to donate to 129 of 134 charities asked about in the survey, with supporters of “increased technology access” and “universal primary education” containing the largest percentages of PaVRs across issues (49% and 41% respectively).

Nonprofits take note: These behaviors reflect the broader demographic profile of PaVRs as higher-income urban professionals who advocate not only for causes they care about but also for products and services that they enjoy.

To explore the effectiveness of VR as a charity platform, Nielsen used its Las Vegas-based research lab, where over 1,000 consumers have experienced and evaluated VR content so far this year, with one-quarter of its VR testing inventory set aside to evaluate experiences created by or for non-profit organizations. For 14 pieces of charity VR content tested, roughly 100 U.S. consumers viewed a 360 video in a Samsung Gear VR headset, and roughly 100 U.S. consumers viewed a piece of midroll (online advertising that plays in the middle of a video) on a tablet.

The ongoing research has found that 360 video is extremely effective at communicating charity brands to consumers, as over four in five consumers (84%) were able to recall the featured charity across the content tested, significantly more than were able to recall the brand from traditional ad pods (53%). Across brand impact measures, the VR content influenced a broader set of the exposed population—from familiarity (45% vs 34%) to affinity (36% vs 25%) to info seeking (48% vs 37%).

But what about actually inspiring action?

Nielsen research found that nearly half of consumers who viewed the VR content were likely to donate afterward (48%), compared with just over one-third for more traditional units (38%). The most affected metric was recommendation intent, as over half (51%) increased their likelihood to recommend the featured charity after viewing it in VR, compared with only 42% for midroll.

Beyond surveying consumers for content experience and brand attitudes, each participant was also provided $20 in artificial currency that they could choose to donate to a preset mix of charities. VR content motivated larger donations than traditional advertising for 10 of the 12 experiences where this exercise was included in the study, with VR driving as much as three times the dollar value driven by traditional advertising.

“On the one hand, some may find it surprising that such an immersive experience doesn’t beat a flat comparison 100% of the time; however, it’s important to remember that VR is still in an embryonic stage as a medium, so to already see such strong performance from VR relative to more traditional ad formats is an encouraging sign for the pioneers making content today,” said Brisson. “With continued research and improvement, these experiences will only continue to improve, benefiting consumers, creators, and the charities they support.”

In addition to being effective overall, charity-centered VR content was also more effective at driving attitudinal impact than advertiser-centered VR content. For example, charity VR content drove a 30% greater information-seeking intent increase relative to midroll, nearly three times the “return on immersion” seen by advertisers. Charity content was also slightly more likely to pique consumer interest in viewing more content, a potential explanation for the enhanced effectiveness observed.

While it’s clear that well-thought-out 360 degree video can have a positive impact for charity brands and that VR audiences possess desirable characteristics to charities, a key question remains: what makes great VR experiences?

While Nielsen’s commitment to this type of research will continue to reveal answers, early analysis suggests that VR creators need to focus on identifying a compelling world for their story to take place. Unlike other content types tested in the media lab, evaluation of an experience’s setting was the strongest driver of viewing interest—stronger than engagement with characters, concept or story. By focusing on the audience’s environment, creators could tap into VR’s unique voice to convey experiences that are much more “real” and meaningful to consumers.

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