What may have started as an interesting quirk, has increasingly become an unexpected development in the digital marketing sphere. It may be a shock, but, augmented reality is now being taken very seriously as an advertising tool by young and old organisations alike. So, how is it being harnessed now and how can it continue to be harnessed in the future?

Augmented reality (AR) is not to be confused with virtual reality (VR), VR changes the world as we see it around us through the use of a headset or multi-projected environments, which can provide a fully immersive 360 degrees experience (I’m sure by now we’ve all seen a video of a child or grandparent getting a scare from a VR headset). Whereas, AR uses digital technology to overlay information or media to real-world scenarios through the use of a smartphone or tablet.

This gives marketers a way to advertise in a unique way, to almost anyone, with augmented reality being able to turn a regular item, like a magazine or a coffee cup, into a full 3D experience through the user’s camera. When the augmented reality function is triggered, the view through the user’s camera is transformed; through either marker-based or markerless AR. Marker-based AR makes use of a physical trigger to set off the AR (QR code, barcode, picture, etc) and markerless AR is triggered by the opening of the camera and the world seen through it.

The past

A great example of marker-based AR is the app Snapchat (now many other social players have similar features, like Instagram Stories and Facebook), in which users can overlay animation on videos or images of themselves, using their face as an anchor for cat ears, sunglasses, moustaches or whatever else Snapchat has going on at the moment. This method of augmented reality has also been used by several companies like Starbucks and Guinness as a way to promote their brands and advertise in creative ways. Markerless AR is a little less restrictive but potentially harder to pull off. A great example of this is the flash in the pan success, Pokemon-Go.

person playing on the app PokemonGo

In the summer of 2016, this AR app by Nintendo skyrocketed upon release, it seemed like everyone was out there playing it, wandering around and chasing after digitally animated Pokemon. While it briefly achieved its aim of getting people out and about hunting for fictional characters, the public began to neglect it more and more as the summer months came to a close. However, this app allowed users to follow maps and try to capture the Pokemon they came across, opening the smartphone camera to show the Pokemon standing in front of them in their location (yes, even if you were at your local ASDA)! It didn’t matter where you were, Pokemon-Go was able to transform the world around you into a hunting ground and it cleverly used important locations as key places to get points and rewards. More kids were out and about exploring the special places that were close to them. It may not have lasted long, but it has stuck in the minds of many and has inspired more serious conversations about the application of it in the world of digital marketing.

While it may seem gimmicky for a business to employ something like augmented reality in their digital marketing strategy, instead we should look at the real-life benefits of it, should it be used well. Let’s think of the gimmick element as more of a ‘wow’ factor, this instead presents AR as a huge brand awareness opportunity. When AR is done well, it becomes a conversation point, it becomes total water cooler chat, meaning that your company’s brand awareness goes through the roof. Leading to more people downloading your app and trying it out (increased customer engagement), and the interactive element is likely to get a more positive response (increased user satisfaction)! Most of all, it provides you with a way to present your digital marketing to your customers in a new format. As opposed to the traditional methods, both in print and online, where an ad is presented to a customer and they are prompted to carry out the next action, this method provides an exciting and engaging experience for them. It doesn’t have to always be one-sided.

The present

Currently, AR is being expanded in really exciting ways, with Ikea Place and Wayfair’s ‘View in Room 3D’. Both of these apps allow potential customers to view furniture to scale in their homes instead of measuring and hoping for the best. Of course, the creation of both of these apps didn’t come without difficulty, what with working out how to present a ‘to scale’ model of over 2000 items for an endless amount of room sizes and shapes, but this is still a great example of how AR is being used in a way that is beneficial to both company and customer. In fact, Shrenik Sadalgi, head of next-gen experiences at Wayfair, said: “It’ll become second nature, viewing a product in your room will be almost mandatory at some point.” And, we can’t bring ourselves to disagree with him.

Nike is getting in on the act too, however, they’re doing it through Snapchat. Back in February, those who attended the Nike after party for the NBA All-Star game were given the chance to open Snapchat, scan a QR code and purchase Nike’s Air Jordan III ‘Tinker’ shoe on pre-sale for same day delivery. The shoes sold out in 23 minutes. This method of selling, not only utilised augmented reality, but it also created an air of excitement and genuine exclusivity, a heady and winning combination when it comes to sales and advertising. It clearly paid off.

Increasingly, more retailers are opting for in-store AR methods: Timberland has a virtual fitting room, so do Topshop, Lacoste and Converse who now let people virtually try on shoes. Charlotte Tilbury’s ‘Magic Mirror’ in London Westfield was a huge success, allowing people to virtually see themselves in 10 of the make up icon’s signature looks. Despite two-thirds of companies not employing AR methods in their advertising and shopability, it’s clear that this fact is soon about to change.

The Geoching app is a great example of how the Pokemon-Go hype has been evolved into a new, income generating, business model. Geocaching is an outdoor recreational activity, in which participants use the GPS on their mobile to complete a 'hide and seek' type activity. Through the app they navigate to containers, called "geocaches" or "caches", at specific locations marked by coordinates all over the world. The company now sells packages to companies looking to use the app to advertise their offering via their own treasure hunt. 

The future

So where can augmented reality go from here, especially in the realm of digital marketing? At the moment, AR is still often an expensive option when it comes to brand awareness and advertising. It’s likely that we’re only going to see big brands taking advantage of it right now until it becomes more accessible. However, ad spend in the UK alone hit a jaw-dropping £22.1 billion last year, with many smaller businesses getting in on the action where they can.

As AR becomes more accessible for the average advertiser, the key element of its success will be originality. Often the least expected thing becomes a viral success, for example, Snapchat’s dancing hotdog filter became such a sensation that there are now plush toys of it being produced. The same can be applied to Apple’s emojis, these tiny icons have enjoyed so much success that they are now the stars of movies and adorning everything from bedding to stationery (check out our Noodle with her favourite cushion below). You really cannot even pop into your local shop without being assaulted with emoji merchandise. Focus on creating concepts that are true to your brand yet totally unique, going in with the mindset of ‘let’s make something that will go viral!” already has you thinking too much about one thing that is very very hard to achieve.

Noodle the office dog

Use it to breathe life into your products, AR technology offers so much in terms of how you can display what your company produces. You could have a virtual catalogue, a character that floats along beside what you’re looking at and offers explanation (I know you’re thinking of Microsoft's Clippy, he may have been annoying but he has paved the way for assistive technology) or even go down the Snapchat route and think of how you can make something fun and shareable that also promotes what you’re selling. 

This year is set to be a big year for things like AR and AI, however, we think that AR’s potential is still in its infancy with a lot of big intriguing steps still to take before it truly comes into its own.