Do’s and Don’ts of Augmented Reality Marketing

AR Marketing marries learning about a product and using a product. Consider all of the things that’re normal now that weren’t 20 years ago: we cross streets staring at our…

AR Marketing marries learning about a product and using a product.

Consider all of the things that’re normal now that weren’t 20 years ago: we cross streets staring at our phones, ask Google to solve our medical problems, charge cars, eat beef made from plants, and even put our babies to sleep on their backs. Gasp

Behavior changes, but it’s not random. “Situated Cognition Theory” posits that knowledge comes from doing; what we learn and how we behave is bound to social, cultural, and physical contexts. You can sit in a classroom learning about turn signals and parallel parking, but you can’t really learn until you get behind the wheel.

Similarly, a man in a turtle neck could hand you a small glowing rectangle and tell you it’s the future. He can even spend millions educating you about swiping, pinching, and whatever an “accelerometer” is. But its only after using an iPhone—sending 7 text messages, answering 12 emails, and liking 114 Instagram posts using just your thumbs —do you realize the value of this learned behavior.

Marketing is mostly passive. The adverts we encounter hope to leave an impression that shapes customer behavior. It sometimes works. Situated cognition theory, in the context of marketing, would claim learning about a product is less effective than learning to use a product.

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Augmented reality offers something in-between. You’re not passively listening to a lecture about driving or actually driving, but you’re simulating the experience of driving from the classroom; you’re controlling it and participating in the experience. Again: knowledge comes from doing. AR enables us to do without, well, doing.

Despite widespread adoption of interactive technologies, marketing still feels like a manifestation of a digital sign-spinner. It’s content. So. Much. Content. Everywhere.

Noise is no longer noise once you figure out how to lower the volume. With government regulation imminent, privacy concerns abound, and the collective recognition that maybe, just maybe, all this noise isn’t good for us, our marketing needs to become participatory. It should give the customer decision-making power. Augmented reality does just that—it enables anyone to adjust the volume, and by doing so “affects the customer’s perception of the decision context directly.”

Not familiar with AR? Check out this primer. Else: continue on!

Do this, not that.

Develop for universality, don’t spread yourself thin.

AR technology is still relatively nascent. Every big tech company and a dozen other players are creating their own kits for designing and deploying AR. To avoid getting dizzy building for every platform, focus on browser-based solutions. Roughly 85% of Americans use either Chrome or Safari. Don’t expect them to download an app. As web technologies improve, the duopoly of  Apple and Google will create powerful frameworks—and likely own the consumer AR glasses market—that work where your customers are: online.

Use AR as an ingredient in the entree, not the entree itself.

Emerging technology is trendy. Just because it’s trendy doesn’t mean it belongs center stage. Consider this: some of the most engaging web experiences—the data visualizations on FiveThirtyEight, the real-time polls on Twitter, the voting animations on Reddit—are all powered by JavaScript. Those companies never frame features around JavaScript. Customers, unlike most digital marketers, aren’t that drawn to tech. They just want human experiences powered by tech.

Amplify the real world, don’t suck people out of it.

Gawker did us all a solid and put together a list of things you can’t do in the Metaverse. Some favorites:

  • Stretch.
  • See texture.
  • Hug your mom.
  • Forget to open a window while you’re chopping onions and feel your eyes burn and weep, and then stare at yourself in the mirror and pretend you are Jessica Chastain in a movie about a custody battle over a prized but aging show horse.

As charming and irreverent as this is, the author makes a very good point: the Metaverse’s biggest pitfall is rendering unavailable so many great, weird, tactile, and spontaneous things only found in physical reality. AR and VR are often lumped into one category (XR), but AR is actually a 110º turn from these immersive technologies. In the short term, we should strive to enhance the natural world—the one we’ve evolved over 6 million years to exist in—before we all transplant our consciousness to our avatars.

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Go beyond the bounds of the smartphone, don’t forget that we’re social beings.

Pokémon Go was a fabulous use case for augmented reality. But its fame was cut short because of stigma. Some shameless players felt fine wandering into a busy Target parking lot, holding their phone to their face, and tapping the screen to catch a Clefairy no one else could see. Meanwhile, the rest of us laughed. A common misconception is that AR is only for the individual—that it exists on smartphones and, soon, smart glasses . Our innate need for socialization is a large thread running through the fabric of reality. Group augmented reality experiences—like the Dallas Cowboy’s group photo, Nat Geo’s mall stunt, or Lockheed Martin’s “Field Trip to Mars”—capitalize on this. Consider adapting existing hardware or designing around an existing environment. Don’t settle for a Facebook feed or an app!

Market at the right time, don’t pigeon hole AR into every stage of the customer journey.

The marketing lifecycle can be described in 6 phases: awareness, considerations, point of sale, post purchase, and customer loyalty. Don’t feel that you must create AR experiences for each phase. There are cases for each phase, but we recommend focusing on two:

  • Consideration: Imagine browsing Netflix for a new movie. It’s unlikely that you’ll select something you’ve never heard of. But F it! You take a chance. The description sounds interesting, but turns out the film is interactive—one of those choose-your-own-adventure things. Do you open it? I don’t think so. You need to gain some sort of rapport before you ask customers to interact with your promotion. AR, as mentioned, is inherently interactive; it requires an investment of time and energy (even if small). In retargeting potential customers or users, create an experience that has a low barrier to entry (such as an in-browser or Snapchat experience) and require minimal interaction (single click or tap, notice as you pass by on the street) to “complete” the experience.
  • Customer Loyalty: At this point, brand affinity is high; customers and audience members now inhabit your world. As such, they expect more. Billboards and display ads won’t cut it. An effective AR deployment here can impress.


The biggest “do”: address the 4 principles of “situated cognition” to elevate your AR marketing

What constitutes as an augmentation of reality is subjective. A marketer can assume that surrounding a bag of real Doritos with 100 bags of digital Doritos has “viral potential” but the customer will likely disagree.

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According to one study from King’s College London, a successful deployment of AR—one that provides real value and increases the likelihood of ROI—will strive to do four things:

  • Enable customers to evaluate what you’re promoting in a personally relevant context, aka embedded experience. For example, holding a physical theater ticket that is augmented by digital way finding directing you to your seat.
  • Enable customers to physically interact with what you’re promoting, aka embodied experience. A soccer ball on a small screen is flicked. A soccer ball in AR is kicked. See the difference? You can even use your voice to yell “GOOOOAAL,” which triggers a crowd roar (I would argue this is more fun than pressing a celebration button).
  • Provide customers with the ability to adapt whatever you’re promoting to their specific needs or tastes, aka adaptive experience. Considering a new tiled backsplash for your kitchen sink? Change the color, pattern, and materials right there in your kitchen before smashing that order button.
  • Enable customers to share whatever you’re promoting with other customers, aka shared experience. Perhaps it’s leaving a 4.5-star review at a coffee shop, digitally painted on its windows. Perhaps its a multi-player AR experience that’s shared locally. More on this later.

In Conclusion

In short: integrating AR into your campaign strategy makes sense. AR naturally lends itself to promoting a product, service, or message. But too often we include emerging tech just to say we did it, and too often marketing tactics rely on distraction from reality. Follow the principles and recommendations above and strive to invent and prioritize the human experience in the physical world. Your customers will thank you.