The term augmented reality (AR) might have sounded like a strange form of plastic surgery when it came to prominence a few years ago, but now it is emerging as an important tool for generating excitement around brands. This year will see publishers use AR to make money.
AR technology can, for example, allow readers to hold their phone in front of a printed page and see extra content on their handset. This might be a moving version of the static image on the paper, a video, a link to buy products or a game – a Shortlist magazine cover last November featured an AR version of 80s computer game Chuckie Egg.
But while this might make reading a magazine or paper more fun, or immerse people in its content more, some in the marketing industry are surprised by how little AR technology has so far been used as a commercial tool by media owners.
News UK’s head of ad innovation Hugh Mark says he has seen publishers make their content look great but that few are thinking about the financial returns: “I’ve always been flabbergasted that they haven’t been synchronising the commercial side with the editorial side.”
He spent much of last year getting the sales and editorial teams to work together and in November produced an interactive version of The Times Magazine, as well as using AR technology in the newspaper’s Times2 features section.
“We had a lot of brands advertising alongside the editorial content and it is obvious that if you have people interacting with their phones with a front cover, they are much more likely to interact with an ad that is a few pages later,” he says. For Mark, these new applications of AR technology were among the most exciting things to emerge during 2012, and in 2013 he expects to do more interactive specials, which will be both editorial and commercial products.
He says that charging brands more to advertise when their content is interactive is not yet happening, but the hope is that News UK’s titles will attract more advertisers that are using the same AR app, Aurasma.
There is a more obvious reason to use AR for some magazine titles than others. Those that have archives of existing content that can be reused, such as Top Gear magazine, which has access to extra footage from the TV show, or Shortlist with its repository of movie-related editorial, are finding that AR is another way to get content to readers. Top Gear has been using the technology for a year and up to 50 per cent of its readers are watching extra content via the Aurasma app.
Top Gear publisher Simon Carrington says that after using AR successfully in 2012 the magazine is looking to extend the objectives of these apps in the first quarter of 2013, ensuring they create commercial opportunities for the magazine as well as adding interest for the reader. “Now we have the numbers and reader engagement and they are used to doing it, the next step is to take it beyond ‘added value’ [for readers], either through advertising or a click-through to a purchase.” He says encouraging people to buy music that Top Gear magazine has reviewed could be one revenue stream.
The click-to-buy function is something that publisher IPC Media is already using: starting this month, Look magazine’s ‘Celebs wear high street too’ page will enable readers to buy products via AR. The title also used the technology in its Look Directory over Christmas, using the Blippar app, which it claims was a first for a classified ad section of a publication.
Another way to monetise AR content is by brand sponsorship. Last month, the Scottish Sun used Aurasma to enable readers to watch the weekend’s goals from Scottish Premier League football matches when they scanned the page with their smartphones – content which was sponsored by William Hill.
“Not only could you have sponsorship, you could also have an action, for example click to bet on next weekend’s matches. AR is flexible – you can overlay menus on top of the page, you can do a lot more than just watch a video,” says Mark at News UK.
Shortlist Media managing director Karl Marsden describes his approach to the commercial use of AR as “bespoke” to the individual campaign or magazine issue. The publisher produced an AR issue of Stylist magazine for the Olympic Games, with 60 per cent of the content being interactive. Shortlist’s gaming special with the Chuckie Egg cover included 70 per cent interactive features and it has also used the technology with several brands including Clarks, Asos, Sony and Warner Bros.
However, the jury is still out as to whether AR can be a consistent revenue generator.
“Our primary objective has been to explore the capability and possibilities associated with AR with our clients. How the commercial potential of this area evolves will depend entirely on the demand for AR-enabled print ads from advertisers and consumers. Advertisers will be moved by tangible evidence of increased engagement,” says Marsden.
Other publishers have also created entire issues powered by Aurasma, such as Condé Nast title GQ, which included 180 AR ads in its September 2011 issue.
Using AR across entire issues of newspapers and magazines will be a trend this year according to Rufus Olins, chief executive of newspaper trade association Newsworks. But he warns that the content that media companies and their advertisers create must be good enough to interest readers. “People are still experimenting with [AR] and it is operating on a relatively small scale, but that doesn’t mean it is not significant. With any new medium it is important that you create content that is going to work in it.”
Aurasma global head of magazines partnerships Matt Mills says that fashion titles in particular like the technology because of its visual nature and cites US Brides and Vanity Fair as having published cover-to-cover AR issues. “Publishers are shifting from doing one or two things to doing [AR] throughout.”
Jessica Butcher, founder and chief marketing officer of AR platform Blippar, says that the data created from using AR is valuable. “From every image you can see how many interactions there are, how many are repeated and what links people have clicked. What a publisher buys is the opportunity to see how many people are interacting.” Brands can also collect data when people click through to enter a competition via an AR app, such as email addresses.
But an advertiser being able to see how many click-throughs their ad has had could be detrimental to a publisher, suggests Steven Watson, director of independent magazine subscription service Stack. “A certain title will say it has many thousands of readers, but as soon as you drill down and see how many people have responded [to an ad on an iPad], you lose this number that you can quote [when selling advertising space in] the print edition.
“So advertisers are going to want have to pay per click [for AR ads] as they do online.”
At free newspaper Metro, AR is not seen as a separate revenue stream, and advertisers are using it anyway – these include the airline Monarch, which ran a cover wrap last month advertising its ski routes where people could use Blippar to explore virtual mountains.
But marketing communications director Bryan Scott says there is potential for this to develop. “Given that smartphones and Metro are natural bedfellows, we definitely see more opportunity for us and advertisers to monetise this relationship further, whether that’s through AR or other ways of interacting with our newspaper.”
Metro first used AR in a promotion it ran itself in 2011 with Blippar, featuring an interactive game played by more than 10,000 people.
However, even given the widespread use of Aurasma and Blippar as AR technology platforms, there is no single standard app across the industry. As former Sunday Times technology editor Alex Pell points out, consumers may choose which app they prefer and will not want to download several based on the ones a publisher, retailer, music label or product is using.
Pell, who now runs Dashboard Media, which helps publishers use AR, sees parallels with the dawn of the internet, when there was a proliferation of web browser programmes, such as Netscape, that disappeared with consolidation in the market. “The momentum behind what people wanted to do overpowered the intentions and desires of the pioneers in the field,” he says.
Pell concedes that there are big opportunities both for publishers and brand advertisers, as long as there is a clear call to action and the extra content is good enough. “Whether or not it allows people to buy the actual item – whole shopping engines can be built into AR apps -data-capture alone can justify the investment. The overall experience must be both engaging and useful.”