Can Augmented Reality Augment Loyalty?

Dec 10, 2012

Can Augmented Reality Augment LoyaltyIn an age where technology changes by the minute, it’s no wonder our opinions on that technology seem nearly as fickle. Take augmented reality, for instance. It wasn’t long ago (late 2010, 2011) that naysayers were calling it “gimmicky” and not ready for primetime. Or, in the words of Thomas Husson, a Principal Analyst at Forrester Research, “…Overhyped technology [in which] …there are a limited number of consumers regularly and actively holding up their smartphone to interact with their environment.”

Today, with smartphone adoption rates exceeding critical mass the world over, there’s a sea of change underway in how augmented reality (AR) is viewed. A new Juniper Research report predicts that AR apps will generate $300 million in global revenue by 2013 and that some 2.5 billion augmented reality apps will be downloaded by 2017.

Augmented reality – the superimposing of digital data, videos, images and sound over real-world images and physical objects – is becoming a marketing phenomenon. And it just might be able to augment loyalty too, especially if AR-equipped apps are being downloaded by the billions. No other technology out there is so determined to deliver a wholly new immersive experience, one that mixes engagement with information and fun. Not to mention prototype products such as Google Glass, (essentially an AR-enabled glasses-like wearable smartphone) will be commonplace in the not-so-distant future.

Case in point: Esquire magazine. Although the brand had experimented with AR back in 2009, it’s clear that for its second attempt, the potential augmented reality audience is considerably larger. For its December 2012 issue, the magazine teamed up with app developer Netpage to design a fully interactive print edition.

Smartphone owners download the Netpage app and then point their phone’s camera at physical images. Esquire’s front page features an AR video of actor Bradley Cooper. Readers can also scan images of every page in the magazine which will automatically be converted into interactive PDFs, preserving hyperlinks, and saved on users’ Netpage accounts (not on their phone, but in the cloud). Those images can later be shared via social media.

This gives Esquire readers the best of both worlds – a physical magazine to hold, flip through and discard, but also much of the same connectivity contained in a smartphone and tablet. Perhaps future versions of Esquire’s AR launch will link with readers’ Facebook profiles or LinkedIn pages or any other social media outlets and tailor AR videos and messages accordingly.

Why not just read the magazine in its tablet format, you ask, and achieve similar form, function and loyalty-generating behaviors? Well, for one, only about a third of Americans currently own tablets and sometimes, for all technology’s benefits, traditional communication media remain the easiest to handle. And smartphone screens are tiny for close up reading. There’s also something to be said about brand loyalty when a consumer chooses a specific magazine to physically purchase; they’re arguably already more committed to the product at a level beyond simply downloading an app or digital copy.

While Netpage only works with Esquire at the moment, its roster is sure to expand. If loyalty is about fostering genuine, experience-driven connections, then AR done right can be an effective method of delivering more information to tech-savvy (and even the less tech-inclined) consumers in a fun and engaging manner.

Even back in December 2010 when Thomas Husson offered those critical words regarding AR, he wasn’t without enthusiasm. He may have called augmented reality “overhyped,” but he also noted that the technology was poised to become “a disruptive one in the years to come” based on two major factors: increasing computer capabilities and “the availability of mass-market connectivity.”

Disruptive? Absolutely. What Husson failed to appreciate, though, was AR’s loyalty potential and the longing customers increasingly feel for those genuine connections in a sea of marketing overkill. Guaranteed, there’s nothing virtual or augmented about that.