“The thing I’m most interested in is virtual reality. Augmented reality as well. That’s where I think the most exciting opportunities are.” Sir Martin Sorrell (founder and CEO of WPP, the world’s largest advertising and marketing company) speaking at CES in January 2018.  

The sports business ecosystem stands at a fascinating crossroads.

On one side, Facebook. Google, Amazon and TenCent are leading a charge of the world’s biggest tech firms, all of whom are looking for an opportunity to become the new wave of rights holders.

And on the other, the traditional sponsorship brands are battling fiercely to stand out from the crowd by speaking to their customers in new and better ways. And it’s this area I want to focus on.

Sports sponsorship is big business and statistics would suggest the marketplace is in rude health, despite suggestions that Fifa is short of sponsors for the 2018 World Cup in Russia. Rio’s recent Olympics were the richest in history with a record number of sponsors contributing to £7bn in marketing income. The attraction is obvious, sport brings people together, provokes strong emotions, a spirit of loyalty and unity. And for many brands those values are important as are the fact that sport, brings their target audience together as a group, in one place, at one time. 

That provides brands with the opportunity to win new customers. But with our attention spans now officially lower than a goldfish knowing how to cut through the noise and stand out from the crowd is the difference between success and a return on your sponsorship dollars. Or failure and a knock on the door from the CEO asking what exactly were you thinking.

And this is where Virtual and Augmented Reality (VR & AR) provide an incredible opportunity for forward-thinking brands. Just as it was with social media, where many brands were slow and cautious to adopt, only to see the competition making hay in a new market they understood.
Brands who are forward thinking, who are innovative and adventurous have the opportunity to get ahead and steal a march on the competition if they know how to use VR and AR correctly. Sir Martin Sorrell, the founder and CEO of WPP, has nailed his colours to the mast and if you want to explore why, here are my five keys to using AR/VR to activate your sponsorship successfully.

1. Gamification:

Pokemon Go showed the world what is possible with AR. More than 750m people have played the game, generating $1.2bn in revenue to date. The engagement statistics are key, however, with each user spending 26 minutes in the app on average. How can sports brands piggy bag this success story? AR games around arenas on match day are easy to create, engaging for fans and can drive revenue if you know how. And we do.

 
2. Bring your brand to life:

Let’s use Coca-Cola as an example. They are sponsoring the World Cup in Russia, once again. A major campaign that will be all encompassing and visible. What if Coke used AR to bring every can to life? AR can do that, it can turn every can or bottle or poster or magazine advert into a portal through which Coke can send content. Perhaps when you hold a Coke AR app up to the can, you get the latest highlights of the match, or you get the chance to watch carefully crafted content from the campaign, or every Coke can becomes a goal and you create an AR game where players have to shoot an AR football into the can. Your high score and a picture can then be shared directly to social media by one click. With AR, a can can (sorry) be more than just a can.

3. VR – the audience is out there:

As with any new technology, the will always be doubters. 2018 has been dubbed the year of AR, but 360° video is enjoying an incredible growth in audience on social media. In 2016, 280m people consumed 360° video on Facebook alone. That number leapt to more than half a billion last year. More than doubling. 70m people uploaded their own 360° photos to Facebook. Headset sales are steady if not spectacular, but VR does not need to be consumed in the headset to capture the imagination. Every web browser now supports 360° video, as does Twitter, YouTube and other social platforms. And statistics suggest the impact and engagement with 360° video is much higher than traditional 2D video. 

4. Audiences want more engaging immersive experiences:

You need to work harder than ever before to create content that cuts through. The social media generation need more than you have ever given before. They want different and more engaging experiences. And VR and AR can provide a better way of activating sports sponsorship. This is the view of Jean-Pierre Diernaz, vice president for marketing at Nissan Europe: “Sports sponsorship gives you the entry ticket to access engaging content in an agile way. As a way to deliver logo impressions, sponsorship doesn’t work. As a way to deliver content, it does.”

5. Throw everything at it:

If you are going to enhance your sponsorship by using these incredible new technologies, don’t dip your toe in and hope that’s enough. The brands who are making the most of these opportunities, realise they need to jump in with both feet. Create content around the main event and use social media to build excitement and be innovative in the way you build your campaign. Doing things by half will deliver a disappointing result. So, pick the right partners, commit to the project and the results will surprise and delight you.

Ben Smith is the CEO and co-founder of AR and VR agency Laduma.