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There may be no better example of the phrase “hindsight is 20/20” than the QR code. Once touted as the “next big thing,” those funky little squares never quite lived up to the hype, finally coming to rest as a little more than a groan-inducing memory amongst marketers.  In fact, according to a comScore study on QR codes, in 2011 only 6.2 percent of the total mobile audience in the United States had scanned a QR code on their mobile device. This leaves a whopping 93.8 percent of the total mobile audience out of the QR loop.

While a select few may argue that the QR code has unfairly gotten a bad rap, you don’t have to look far for examples of QR failure. Red Bull once ran a subway ad campaign that relied heavily on QR codes. Unfortunately, most subways don’t offer mobile phone connectivity, rendering the codes inaccessible and useless. Then there was the curious case of FedEx. When codes showed up on the side of their delivery vans, we can only hope no fellow drivers felt compelled to give the codes a scan while careening down the highway.

There are, of course, the occasional QR success stories. A couple years ago Heinz put QR codes on its ketchup bottles as a means of promoting its new environmentally friendly packaging. The code linked to a mobile site where users could win prizes by answering “green” trivia questions. Ultimately, Heinz reported that more than 1 million users scanned the code.

Nevertheless, many marketers have been left scratching their heads, wondering where the QR code went wrong, and how future technologies can avoid a similar fate. The rise of mobile and increasing brand interest in finding new ways to interact with users led to the proliferation of QR codes on everything from packaging to magazine ads.

While this may have appeased brands, from a user standpoint QR fails on a couple key fronts. It demands a high level of interactive buy-in. A user is forced to go through several steps to utilize a code. They must activate a QR reader, scan the code, accept, open site — all of which can be daunting — often to discover the content delivered at the end of a QR code is simply just a shortcut to a brand website. While a QR code may serve as a shortcut to a website, if the content lacks engagement and immediacy, users will simply skip the process.

Enter augmented reality. Although “AR” is oft-maligned, as it becomes more accessible, many marketers are curious and eager to embrace it. Unlike QR codes, augmented reality gives retailers and brands the ability to let users and customers see more and do more. It is not a means to a website; it’s a means to a more dynamic, more engaging user experience. By integrating recommendation technologies, location and social components, seeing more enables greater brand engagement, enriching the relationship between consumer and brand.

For marketers and brands considering making AR part of their strategy, it’s critical to ensure that AR content is relevant to the user. AR has the ability to deliver video, 2D imagery, 3D and even animation within the user’s live environment. Integrating content that helps people engage with products is where brands will see a real payoff. By tapping into the insights AR provides, retailers can gain a deeper understanding of what content resonates with the user, enabling them to better tailor messaging and marketing efforts based on where, when and how their audience is engaging with their content.

Another key point of consideration when utilizing AR is the integration of mobile commerce. Brands don’t just want consumers to browse, they want them to buy, track and share. Users should not only be able to see more and do more with AR, they should also have a clear call to action.

General Mills test drove an AR campaign for Lucky Charms in March. Apparently the sugary, marshmallow-y cereal isn’t just for kids, with 45 percent of its consumption coming at the hands — or mouths — of adults. On St. Patrick’s Day it launched an AR campaign that consisted of an augmented reality app that housed a treasure hunt where users searched for eight Lucky charms for a chance to win a pot of gold worth $10,000.

Successful integration of AR can be measured in a few areas: brand engagement and loyalty, call to action and re-engagement. Location-based tools, social networking, recommendations and reviews are all great standalone tools, but when integrated with AR, they provide a new level of engagement and activity-based re-engagement by making the user experience much more personalized. Because of this augmented reality campaign General Mills reports that Lucky Charms increased the number of followers on its Facebook page by 10,000 in four days.

The “next big thing may” not come in the form of a funky little square, but it will ultimately prove to be a vastly better way to enrich engagement and add value to the shopping experience. For brands, this means new and better ways of connecting with consumers, building relationships and learning about what marketing tactics are resonating. And for consumers, AR opens up a new world of engagement with the products and companies they love.

[Image via pixstel]