This article appeared in the November/December, 2018 issue of Mailing Systems Technology.

Direct mail has certainly changed since its inception. Before, the sole purpose seemed to be to catch your attention so the mail piece could relay some information. Today, that’s still the ultimate goal, but direct mail can go even further, until a customer literally feels immersed in an experience, rather than just aware of it. For example, imagine getting a postcard in the mail advertising new discounts for purchasing season passes at your local zoo. Not only does the postcard offer a discount on your pass, but there is also a cute photo of a prairie dog on the front. In addition, the text of the postcard lets you know that if you download an app to your smartphone, you can see the prairie dog come to life. So, you download the app and scan the image of the prairie dog. Suddenly the screen of your phone has multiple adorable prairie dogs running around their habitat at the local zoo. You then call your spouse over and maybe even your kids to show them the cute prairie dogs. The direct mail piece has you hooked, and before you know it, you are using the app you just downloaded to buy a season pass for you and your family. This is one scenario in which augmented reality (AR) might be used to enhance a direct mail campaign.

Over the years, direct mail has been an integral aspect of many successful marketing campaigns, but it has changed dramatically, and it will continue to do so as digital technology envelops an even larger portion of our lives. The first examples of direct mail in the modern age were generic postcards and had limited results. Basically, companies paid to send out generic mailings in hopes a potential customer might just need what the direct mail piece offered. This generic mailing led to the next generation of mailing, which included basic personalization, and, eventually, more specific marketing geared towards the recipients. This personalization led to better results, but it still did not reach the goals many companies wanted. The latest generation of direct mail includes much more robust personalization, as well as specific marketing intended to get the direct mail piece to the correct customer. This latest generation of direct mail also includes technological enhancements, such as AR. Direct mail is still a very relevant piece of any marketing campaign today; it just needs to be modernized to match up to the digital society we all inhabit.

Much like QR codes and barcodes, AR uses a printed trigger to launch a digital interaction on a cell phone or tablet using a downloaded app. Unlike a QR code or a barcode, however, AR uses imagery and/or text and is not restricted to using a defined code made up of lines or boxes. AR interactions can be added to existing designs or be a part of a new marketing campaign. This advancement provides a new way to reach customers while still using a printed piece to launch the digitally enhanced interaction on the screen of the smartphone or similar device, like a tablet.

The Digital Evolution

According to Pew Statistics, 77% of Americans owned a smartphone in February of 2018, as opposed to only 35% in 2011. Additionally, the percentage of adults between the ages of 18 and 29 who own a smartphone is 94%, and the percentage of adults between the ages of 30 and 49 who own a smartphone is 89%. Americans love their smartphones, and that love is not going to go away anytime soon. Therefore, integrating the capabilities of today’s smartphone along with a direct mailing campaign makes for a great partnership, and that is where AR comes into play.

So, what can AR do for your mailing campaign? AR has the capability to differentiate your direct mail campaign from your competition and give you the edge you need to increase your ROI. AR can create some excitement around existing campaigns, as well as create new and even more successful campaigns and help increase your profit margins. Remember: AR is not meant to replace content; it is meant to enhance it.

AR interactions can be as simple as launching a website from a printed mailer, or as complex as launching a three-dimensional image of a car or even a house from a catalog. The digital actions of an AR experience are viewed on a screen and are really only limited by what can be seen on the device. If your consumers’ digital capabilities are extensive, the sky really is the limit when engaging with potential customers.

Take, for example, a mail piece that is part of a campaign whose goal is to increase furniture sales. The consumer would get a postcard in the mail, notice that it has an AR component, and then view the AR component through an app in order to see a complete three-dimensional model of a couch on his or her digital screen. The recipient would then be able to link this visualization to a hyperlink for more information, or even a shopping cart if they wanted to take that final step. One of the great aspects of AR interactions is that their usage provides easy tracking capabilities and can link a customer directly to a shopping experience.

Other Considerations of AR Implementation

While exciting and innovative, AR still must be used strategically and as part of a bigger marketing plan. Don’t just add an AR component because you can; you must have a plan as to what the AR interaction will do and how it will help your business. AR campaigns have to be directed at the right audience, as well. My 81-year-old mother is probably not going to download an app to view a cool AR experience, but my 20-year-old college students probably would. The experience also has to be simple and have an obvious reward for the customer. This reward could be the digital interaction, or maybe a coupon or discount embedded within the interaction. Before sending out an AR-enhanced direct mailer, do some research on your target audience and make sure they are the type of customer that would be more inclined to view the AR component.

One of the greatest limitations of an AR interaction is the need for the customer to download an app in order to see the digital interaction. For this reason, the experience has to be a rewarding one for the customer. The directions to use the AR experience also need to be plainly worded so it is easy for customers to see the benefits they will receive by downloading a specific app. Just stating your mailer is enhanced with AR is not enough. Customers need to be clearly told how to interact with the printed content to see the digital content on their device.

If you are not versed in the world of augmented reality, I would highly suggest you start looking into it. There are many major companies that are currently using AR as part of various print campaigns and many firms that specialize in creating AR interactive content. AR has the potential to breed new life into stagnant direct mail campaigns — and to bring direct mail into the digital age of smartphones.

Dr. Charles Weiss is Associate Professor of Graphic Communications at Clemson University. In addition to teaching, Charles has also worked as a graphic designer, a layout artist, and a customer service representative at a commercial printer. He has more than 15 years of teaching experience, and he has instructed a variety of courses that include offset printing, screen printing, digital printing, photography, multimedia, graphic design software, variable data printing, and the commercial aspects of printing. His research focuses on hybrid learning, augmented reality, and design.

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