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How do you solve a problem like... AR apathy?

Will the proliferation of QR codes help consumers adopt other forms of AR?

Each week, we ask readers of The Drum – from brands, agencies and everything in between – for their advice on real problems facing today’s marketing practitioners. This week, as part of our deep dive into all things Mobile, we focus on the augmented reality question, and whether QR code uptake might provide a breakthrough.

QR codes have been around for about two decades – 20 years in which marketers have tried repeatedly to persuade the public to want to use them. They have, however, proved one of the technological breakthroughs of the pandemic – albeit a minor one next to the marvels of the mRNA vaccine – with QR codes now everywhere, with no fuss. Suddenly everyone’s using them – in the pub, in the vaccine center, at restaurants. Could this be the breakthrough adland has been waiting for?

If so, it could open up a whole new world of AR-led marketing, with QR codes and other prompt devices used to literally increase the surface area for activations and ads – if marketers can avoid triggering a relapse to consumer apathy.

How do you solve a problem like consumer apathy towards AR?

Tom Hostler, head of brand experience, Publicis Poke

QR codes have largely been confined to museums and other minor experiences. That all changed when they emerged as a solution to many of the restrictions the pandemic placed on businesses and our lives.

That has now permanently dismantled the biggest barrier to triggering AR experiences and, along with advancements in AR frameworks and increased handset support, makes proposing the technology to deliver immersive 3D entertainment experiences much easier.

In retail, this means we can achieve levels of immersion that even the largest high-definition flatscreens fail to deliver. And freed of the usual space requirements, that means every store can potentially be a flagship.

In OOH, I think we’ll see large-scale outdoor AR ‘leaping off the poster’ to use the public realm as its canvas, so even the smallest of brands can come close to the physicality of a Piccadilly Circus moment. The opportunity for branded entertainment and gaming is 20 stories high!

As experiences increasingly spill out into public spaces, we must tread carefully, or we run the risk of being accused of virtual ‘brandalism’ as we broker a new relationship between brands, the public realm and the people who use it.

Claire Kimber, group innovation director, Posterscope

We carry the internet with us and the QR code is now a recognizable front door to stuff we want on the internet, whether it’s a payment, information or ‘something more’. It’s the universal consumer motif that signals ‘something more’, and a more exciting space as AR rapidly evolves. The only way to guard against consumer apathy is to ensure that what we do with AR is always high quality. Consumers will engage if something is good. They won’t bother if it’s bad or average. So the answer is simple: if you’re making ‘something more’, make sure it’s something memorable.

Greg Assemat Tessandier, president, Elephant

With QR codes, the user is demonstrating intent. It is a high effort, high reward behavior. Get your phone out, open camera, point, click, interact. With the pandemic, we all used QR codes to access ’touch free’ services – getting the menu at a restaurant, paying the tab, viewing personal vaccine information. Suddenly, this tiny tech is identified by all of us as a driver and access point to value. For our Xfinity client, we are utilizing QR codes and AR to transform its 500+ stores into digital playgrounds. To be successful, we need to uphold this new paradigm.

Mike Cooper, vice-president of digital strategy, UK & Europe, McCann Worldgroup

The only way to drive AR adoption is to provide value to the customer beyond a web or app experience. On mobile, AR experiences are usually individual and short lived, but the best experiences will be shared, involving multiple people at a time when we’re trying to physically reconnect.

While we may be limited to mobile devices, now is the time to experiment and learn because the foundations are being laid for an AR future where QR codes won’t need to be the trigger, but rather product logos and physical world elements themselves. The next generation of smart glasses will naturally keep you in the moment and enhance the physical world, making them the true way to experience this amazing technology.

Laura Visick, director of innovation, FCB Inferno

We don’t want to bombard consumers with scannable experiences that all too often don’t provide the payoff that they’re looking for and therefore put them off later down the line. The essential question to ask is: is this the best way for people to engage with this message?

Plonking QR codes on comms, just because we can, will create apathy sooner! When Camden Town Brewery put a QR code on its TV ad, it made sure that anyone who scanned it was provided with a great payoff: free beer. Not all of us are in the position to give away from alcohol, but you get the point. Make it surprising, make it sticky, make it exciting. And whatever you do, make it worthwhile.

Natasha Chetiyawardana, creative partner and founder, Bow and Arrow

While QR codes are becoming a much more familiar sight, people aren’t interested in tech for tech’s sake. They still need a ‘why’. The need for a contactless menu is obvious to everyone. Also, it helps when the tech itself is doing something that nothing else could – as demonstrated by a recent German campaign around a ban on rubbernecking, with QR codes sending automatic warnings to eager gawkers. I’ve been in Zoom meetings where I’ve been forced to use a QR code to switch from my laptop to my smaller phone screen for no apparent reason. We need to use the tech because it makes sense, not just because we can.

Rosh Singh, managing director, Unit9

QR codes have always presented an almost perfect mechanism to trigger digital experiences from physical locations. But the user experience was abhorrent at first; badly designed third-party apps and buggy I-frame interfaces. Penetration was too low to deliver any meaningful scale to campaigns and the UX was too unreliable to deliver a premium experience. So after a period of ‘test-and-learns’, we collectively decided that QR codes were crap and mocked anyone who dared to use one. Even now when most smartphones have QR code readers and premium, consistent experiences are achievable, we can’t quite bring ourselves to back-track and admit that we actually have a pretty good tool, given the right experience sitting behind it. It’s not customer apathy holding QR code adoption back (hi China), it’s adland’s apathy we need to tackle.

Dan Calladine, head of media futures, Carat

Augmented reality is about creating useful tools, or amusing diversions. There have been many attempts to create useful tools – parcel sizers, direction finders within mapping apps – but for most people it is still a technology defined by selfie filters and creating funny pictures.

There are signs that this is changing. Partners report great results when AR is used to drive shopping, for example being able to ‘try on’ a pair of shoes or sunglasses virtually, and this blending of fun and utility is surely the way to get people past their apathy.

Brad Gagne, vice-president of device analytics, Wunderman Thompson Apps

With the recent introduction of Apple’s App Clips and the inclusion of AR into Google’s Instant Apps, users can enter compelling AR experiences in a single tap. Imagine detecting a beacon in a brick-and-mortar store and opening a link directly to a 3D map of the store. Or tapping a mobile banner ad for a cosmetics brand that takes you directly into an AR-enabled camera view to see how a shade of lipstick looks. Until now, AR seemed like a chicken and egg thing – to gain adoption, more brands must build compelling experiences. For brands to build compelling experiences, they need proof that users will adopt. We may be close to solving the latter.

Kirit Rayatt, strategist, Waste

The pandemic has changed the consumer journey, with so many of us spending more time at home and craving unique virtual experiences. QR codes can enrich existing experiences, such as AR, which has proven to be an effective way to connect with consumers wherever they are in the world. Within the gaming sphere, we anticipate being able to use QR codes to extend campaigns, utilizing AR to offer access to exclusive events or even allow people to step into the world of the game. These codes have the power to become enablers for a whole raft of new, shared social experiences.

Faisal Galaria, chief executive officer, Blippar

AR is already massive – consumers may not even realize they’re using it – with Snap alone claiming 170 million use its AR tools daily and AR capable tech installed in 4bn smartphones. For AR to become ubiquitous, Blippar believes it needs to be useful, as well as fun. The applications for utility are accelerating in industries including retail, sport and training. This is the perfect time to leverage outward-facing cameras, not just forward-facing cameras, to engage users with unique and immersive AR experiences, and for marketers and brands to reach a primed audience increasingly familiar with AR technology.

Ryan Tym, director, Lantern

QR codes are only prolific today because they’re a necessity – and I don’t see them continuing their renaissance into marketing and advertising once this is all over.

There’s a reason QR codes haven’t succeeded in 20 years – audience incentive never changes and no one wants to be bombarded with branded content that doesn’t interest them. Throw in an offer, discount or genuinely helpful practical information and their use is purposeful. But seeing a longer version of your TV ad or a link to your campaign page isn't enough for people to engage.

Nico Rahardian Tangara, senior art director, BBH Singapore

We could build better experiences from the scanning of the QR code itself. Does it open some AR, animation, play music, giving you reward, or even give a dynamic greeting based on where and when you scan it?

One thing that we have to give is a continuous story from the moment you scan it. If it shows a picture of a sleeping cat on the poster, does the cat wake up on your phone after the QR code? Small details turn QR codes into an extension of the experience, not just a call to action. This way it’s not just a tool but something more engaging and fun.

Carol Tay, senior director sales, South East Asia, Verizon Media

We’ve seen firsthand through the work with our clients that next-gen brand activations leveraging immersive experiences such as AR bring a new level of interactivity and engagement – and this only scratches the surface of its utility.

Make sure that you’re not using AR as a gimmick and consider how you can improve the experience for consumers. Beyond creative storytelling, ’enter their world’ and use AR to connect audiences to the world around them as they engage with your brand. Make it easier for shoppers and build confidence in purchase decisions with AR-enabled commerce and virtual try-outs. The possibilities are endless, and brands that serve up new, innovative and exciting experiences that provide relevance and utility to their audiences will stand out.

Jessica Chapplow, head of e-commerce, Havas Market

AR offers great possibilities to close the gap between conversation and conversion in the path to purchase. We will also see new ways to scan physical items that do not rely on the rudimentary black and white QR square, opening the potential for many more intimate brand experiences. Dynamic QR codes are editable and can hold more data – two capabilities that will be particularly powerful in a retail landscape that continues to shapeshift. Marketers should be cognizant of the reality that omnipresence does not guarantee omnipotence. As with any consumer technology, QR codes must be a gateway – not a gimmick – to elevating the customer experience.

For more in-depth coverage on the present and future of mobile marketing, dial in to The Drum’s Mobile hub.

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