I want to start with my strongest piece of advice: Don’t let a dancing hot dog peer pressure you into doing anything.
If you’re not familiar, the hot dog was an augmented reality filter created by Snapchat earlier this year. It became something of an obsession for users and a bellwether for many in the advertising and marketing industry, proving that if you infuse cutting-edge technology with the right level of fun, you can create a blockbuster experience.
3D holograms of the Moon Person in the Holo app
Six months ago, I stuck my neck out to make what some people were referring to as a dancing-hot-dog-inspired trick by assembling the team that launched the MTV Moon Person into augmented reality. Our effort generated almost 20 million impressions and 2.4 million views across social media over the course of one week. In an era where captivating an audience for three to six seconds is considered a win, our users spent more than two and a half minutes immersed in our branded experience. The effort was a success not because it was another dancing character—it was a success because we created an experience our audience wanted to immerse themselves in, creating content they wanted to share.
To be clear, I’m not an expert in AR. I’m not even an evangelist. As a senior director of social content partnerships for Viacom Velocity, a branded content studio, my attitude towards AR has ranged from skepticism to curiosity and, until recently, activating it felt beyond my reach. But this summer, fueled by the possibility of initiating a fast-moving creative process and establishing an innovative product that could really resonate with people, I decided to launch a small branded content experiment with AR. My goals were to educate myself and my team on the technology, separate hype from reality, and run a performance test with actual consumers. With the help of some very smart team members and crucial support from MTV, our small test became an enormous success.
What follows is an account intended for anyone who is curious (or skeptical) about working with AR about why we decided to pursue the technology, how we got the test off the ground, and what we learned—about our own company, our advertising partners, and our audience.
Getting past gimmicks
I work at a company with a simple mantra: to create experiences that put fans first. This means that fans drive and inspire everything we do, and we’re always striving to find new ways to give them a voice and a way to connect to the programs or personalities they love. I knew I wanted to work with AR, but I needed to seriously consider the value exchange between our company and our fans. I struggled to think past the superficial reasons like “it’s cool,” or “everyone’s talking about it (again).” I was also hesitant because it’s still a relatively new technology and has a reputation for being gimmicky. At every slick demo I saw at conferences, meet-ups, and festivals, I was always plagued by the same question, “will our audience want to use this?”
The solution came on the front porch of a house party at SXSW. I noticed a crowd forming around a former MTV colleague, who’s now leading a production studio at 8i, a virtual and augmented reality software startup. People were watching him insert holograms of “real life” characters—a Mexican wrestler, a poodle, a Donald Trump impersonator—into a video he was shooting on his iPhone. The app, called Holo, was still in beta. It had a clunky UX and the image resolution of the holograms wasn’t quite crisp. But rather than detract from the overall experience, these imperfections added a kind of punk rock appeal. Then something happened at this impromptu demo that I hadn’t seen before—people began asking where they could download the app as others searched for it in vain on the iOS App Store.
The result proves that the experience we created felt as inspiring to our audience as the process was for our team. By honoring our creativity, we gave them a way to express their creativity.
8i’s Holo technology passed the first test of demonstrating its value: It was fun, people wanted it and, most importantly, it was a useful creative tool in world where everyone is a content creator looking for new and better ways to express themselves on social media. Now that I had an AR product and partner in place, it was time to test my assumption and discover if there was a product-market fit with our fans.
Staying small to plan big
I knew that to design and implement a productive test, I would need to convince several talented people with distinct points of view to contribute. But, I worried that if managed incorrectly, our collaboration could quickly spiral into death by committee. Innovation would be stifled and our time would be wasted. To avoid this, I applied a Lean Startup approach to the product development process. This meant getting ideas out of our heads by rapidly prototyping simple paper mockups, wireframes, and social media distribution plans that were shared among the team for fast, actionable feedback.
The original plan was to quietly test AR as part of a branded content pilot by featuring a hologram of a popular dance influencer. But, in response to an initial prototype (which was a few animated slides in a deck), the scope ballooned. By combining specific ideas from several team members, we decided to have the Moon Person—MTV’s most iconic piece of intellectual property, and formerly known as the Moonman—perform a series of five hyper-trending dance moves to support the 2017 MTV Video Music Awards.
Using a lean approach allowed us to tackle a complex project using an unfamiliar technology over a tight timeframe by breaking the task down into manageable pieces. Were there a million emails, phone calls, and Slack chats? Absolutely. But we focused on identifying next steps, anticipating possible problems, gauging stakeholder concern before taking a specific direction, confirming commitment each time we chose a direction, and pushing immediate follow-up.
With each successive iteration, we were able to adjust a social distribution plan that spanned multiple MTV and influencer accounts to ensure we were using the right platforms in the right ways. We were also able to solve technical issues (for example, we ran a week of wardrobe tests to ensure that the Moon Person’s reflective space suit could be captured by 8i’s video technology) and design a branded environment within the Holo App that would drive tune-in and awareness for the VMAs.
Forgetting the vanity metrics
The most challenging part about setting KPIs for our test was to not settle for a metric like social media impressions or views. Instead, I decided that the “one metric that matters” was average user session within the MTV branded experience. The goal was to build something immersive, and I wanted to see if we really created an experience that captivated fans.
Ultimately, I was relieved and a little blown away when the numbers came in and revealed that the average session length was over two and a half minutes. That’s almost three minutes of exposure to the MTV brand and to VMAs tune-in messaging, as fans created a piece of content that would ultimately be shared across social and peer-to-peer. I think the result proves that the experience we created felt as inspiring to our audience as the process was for our team. By honoring our creativity, we gave them a way to express their creativity. It also put us ahead of competitors, attracting press attention weeks before stories were published about Apple’s ARKit release.
The Moon Person test continues to serve as a blueprint for creating, packaging and selling AR opportunities to our clients, a chance to develop domain expertise with a popular new technology, and a learning experience that we continue to share across the company.
AR isn’t for every creator or every brand, but fear of unfamiliar technology shouldn’t hold you back. With the right idea, the right partners, and the right process you can make some pretty awesome experiences—and you don’t need to be a Silicon Valley type to do it. If you’re not putting serious thought and imagination into how to leverage AR or other new technologies, you’re letting your fans—and the future—pass you by.