First came QR codes. Now, augmented reality looms as the next big thing for direct mail.
Many families that ski know Snowmass Village, just west of Aspen, Colo., as an undisputed slice of paradise. Crowds have flocked to the hamlet for years.
But earlier this year, even those in the know got to see Snowmass anew, courtesy of a clever marketing campaign that called upon a dazzling, but relatively new, technology as its centerpiece.
The campaign’s goal was simple enough: engage and entice young skiers and parents to participate in the 2011 Kids Ski Free Campaign. The campaign’s execution, however, was anything but simple, thanks to The Myers Roberts Collective’s decision to employ augmented reality.
Augmented reality — known as AR — works by projecting computer-generated data and three-dimensional graphics into the real world. A computer or cellphone essentially becomes consumers’ eyes and their entree into a multilayered, three-dimensional experience.
For the Snowmass campaign, the slopes literally leapt to life from a printed postcard. About 25,000 mailers were sent to a target audience, each postcard featuring a special black and white patterned symbol, similar to QR codes.
To access the Snowmass AR campaign, users were directed to a special website and asked to hold the mailed postcard in front of the webcam. And with the symbol functioning as a key of sorts, relaying vital digital-recognition information much like facial recognition technology to the computer, virtual skiers came alive along with a 3-D ski lift, all surrounded by the sounds of children laughing as they learned the ins and outs of skiing down the mountains.
“This was a way to generate a wow factor around an existing promotion and to let people have a bit of the Snowmass experience using just a postcard and a webcam. It was fun,” said Kevin Roberts, a co-founder and principal of The Myers Roberts Collective.”
A 3-D Business Tool
Marketing experts and observers say augmented reality is much more than fun and games. It offers an entirely new avenue for direct mail, an eye-catching and meaningful way to ensure that mail continues as a mainstay in multichannel communications.
Recently, one of the nation’s largest discount retailers sent out an AR mailer to promote its expanded grocery section. The mailer included a coupon for soda that, when peeled off, revealed an AR code printed on the mailer. Used with a webcam, the code activated a 3-D AR image of the retailers’ new grocery aisles, all stocked with fresh food.
One global auto manufacturer has used AR to encourage virtual test drives of its vehicles. And a German toymaker has combined AR with its catalog to produce 3-D images of cars racing around tracks.
“Ultimately, we’re all out to extend the length of time a consumer is going to keep that printed piece with them,” says Art Calamari, vice president of strategic accounts for Taylor, one of the largest direct mail printers in the nation. “AR is the perfect tool because it gives consumers a real reason to hold on to printed pieces and to hopefully take the next step.”
Kevin Roberts offers an even more upbeat view: “AR takes a venerated medium in direct mail and jumps it further into the future. When a client realizes they can look at a piece of printed material and have it convey information in the same captivating way as a digital campaign, the potential is mindboggling.”
But Is It Trackable?
Of course, for direct marketers the real measure of relevance is always this: Can you track a campaign’s footprint among consumers? With AR, the answer is, by design, a resounding “Yes.”
Wherever a barcode is embedded on a printed piece, it instantly opens the door to targeted tracking.
“Now, with AR, there’s incredible real-time opportunity for clients to monitor and to adjust to consumer response and be very fluid doing so,” says Kevin Roberts. “Every time I click, you know I clicked — and the client can see it. They know what happened and that it originated from a printed piece of mail. It’s an enormous selling tool.”
Making the Case for Augmented Reality
Art Calamari, of Taylor, encountered the technology for the very first time just a year ago.
Calamari was so impressed he made an immediate decision to make AR the star attraction of the Taylor booth during the 2011 Direct Marketing Association convention in Boston. Visitors to the booth received a printed postcard and an invitation to visit a special website to unlock the encoded graphics and information. “From the postcard,” explains Calamari, “we were able to monitor people taking it back and showing others some of the possibilities.”
“We created an application featuring a postcard that an insurance agent could send out showing his image and a neat little graphic that could change with information, like a billboard, each week using the same postcard,” says Calamari. “The selling point is again helping consumers hold on to that printed piece a little longer.”
Taylor created another demo using printed sports tickets. “We were able to show season ticketholders their seat in the stadium and the view it offered from different angles. When you can come up with something that makes sense and naturally drives consumers to take a next step, then AR sells itself,” Calamari says.
One widely imagined use for the technology is among real estate agents and architects, sectors that routinely advertise via direct mail and even newspapers. “Using AR, it’s really not too hard to imagine getting a postcard in the mail for some vacant piece of land, then going out with your iPad or phone and seeing your dream house before it’s even built or a builder has been hired,” says Kevin Roberts. “If you can dream it, you can do it.”
While potential for AR’s impact on direct mail is clearly high, the costs can seem so too for some budget-conscious marketers. Creating the necessary three-dimensional renderings can cost upwards of $10,000, according to Art Calamari. Design, video and sound must be factored in as well, depending on the campaign’s scope.
“The complication comes in determining how much you need to spend to make your product look good. The further we can move beyond the cool factor, the more it can be justified and the more the costs will come down,” says Calamari.
A Slow Embrace
Kevin Roberts says AR could use its own marketing campaign. As a prime example, he points to a recent worldwide AR convention that he attended in Silicon Valley this past spring. The crowd was paltry, compared to the thousands who attend the Direct Marketing Association convention.
“The phase that AR is in right now is kind of like when e-mail and the Internet were just getting started,” Roberts says. “It’s game-changing, but not everyone has quite caught on.”
He adds, “The developers are putting all of their effort and attention into making it work. None of the people actually creating it are out marketing it, which creates this natural lapse in its growth in the marketplace.”
Robert argues that the missing message of AR is that it’s more than digital wizardry gone wild. “A lot of AR up until this point has been done just because it’s so cool and so new,” he says. “But now companies are realizing and experiencing the fact that it’s more of a tool of visual innovation than a fad.”
The challenge, says Dennis Ryan, chief creative officer for Minneapolis ad agency Olson, is to continue demonstrating AR’s unique ability to engage consumers and to “extend mail’s shelf life and make consumers feel bad for throwing it away,” especially in industries where print is still a viable channel — such as local restaurants, real estate, architecture and even car sales.
“A ton of education needs to happen, but it’s like any technology; you do it, then you get it. We just have to continue driving adoption in ways that make AR meaningful to the end consumer,” he says.
But, Ryan cautions, while AR may be enough to entice consumers, good old-fashioned marketing principles still trump technology: “Technology has empowered consumers to be incredibly selfish. They don’t have to bother, no matter how much effort has gone into a campaign. And that means that AR will not advance if the experience at the end isn’t remarkable. But if you can promise — and deliver — a remarkable experience, AR really does have a great chance to become mail’s next logical leap into the future.”Case Studies, mobile, Prospecting, Strategy, Targeting, Technology, Trends