How to Use AR Marketing to Make Strong Emotional Connections with Your Audience

Augmented Reality (AR) is easily the hottest marketing trend at the moment. Every brand wants to give their customers a unique experience by combining the digital online realm with customers’ experienced reality.

While AR may still seem new and novel, the first AR phone game, AR Quake, actually came out in 2000 and AR based apps followed soon after, way before anyone had heard of Pokemon Go.

To put it simply, AR is when you view the world through a screen (usually on a phone) and you can see digital elements overlaid onto the real world. This is not to be confused with virtual reality (VR), which creates an entirely digital world for people to explore with specialized headsets that completely immerse them in that world. Many brands are already using augmented reality for marketing, as the technology has long ago moved past the novelty stage and is now incredibly useful for marketing and branding.

In fact, the big brands have already been busy using AR for marketing purposes. Research firm Deloitte found that almost 90% of companies earning annual revenues of $100 million to $1 billion are using AR and/or VR technology in some way. The use of AR technology for marketing is starting to trickle down to smaller businesses.

Why use Augmented Reality Marketing

In a word: experience. No other form of marketing or advertising can give customers the type of interactive experience that AR can. When used well, it brings advertisements to life and welcomes visitors into a familiar, but specialized world that not only piques their imagination, but provides highly useful information to them. Instead of passively reading or watching an advert, customers directly interact with your content in a way that engages their minds and starts making memories with your brand. That’s the kind of personal connection every brand strives for.

AR is also highly useful for practical purposes like letting your customers try before they buy or giving them instructions on how to do things with your product. It’s so much more than just a way to memorably entertain customers.

How not to use AR for marketing

Before we jump into how to use AR for marketing, we should touch briefly on how not to use it. When AR adds elements that enhance customers’ realities, it’s an amazing and helpful tool that forms a strong connection with people. When it’s used merely for the sake of using it without enhancing the customers’ own reality, it just comes off as a gimmick.

Unfortunately (for them) a lot of large brands have simply opted to go the gimmick route with their AR, using it in their marketing without any real purpose other than to demonstrate that they’re “innovative.”

Theoretically, your AR shouldn’t require a marketing campaign itself to gain users and your AR definitely shouldn’t just be a marketing campaign by itself. Much like AR is used to augment reality, it should also be used to augment your marketing rather than just being the entire campaign.

The best AR marketing campaigns:
  • Provide guests with meaningful brand interaction. (Meaningful here can mean “entertaining.”)
  • Let the AR have an authentic role in the marketing (rather than just being tacked on for the sake of being there).
  • Act as a gateway to new forms of brand engagement (instead of being a one-off that just disappears).

Augmented reality in digital marketing should provide value to customers in a substantial way rather than just being something that is there for the sake of being there.

Probably the worst example of using AR for marketing is the so-called “interactive object” way of marketing. This is where an object like a poster or a bottle has an AR marker on it and you scan the marker with your phone (often having to download the company’s app first). After scanning the marker, online content (like a video or photo) simply appears on screen and floats in front of the object.

The problem with using AR this way is that it doesn’t enhance or augment the customer’s reality in any way. In fact, it makes the simple process of accessing online content needlessly complicated by introducing an AR element that isn’t required.

This fails to add value for the user and, in fact, kind of wastes their time if they’re simply being shown otherwise easily accessible content using AR.

The key to using AR for marketing is that it should cause people not to look at their phones, but rather use their phones to look at the world around them in a new way, with AR superimposed on it, enhancing it.

The best AR is functional in nature, so your first step is figuring out how you will get your audience to interact with AR beyond simply scanning a marker.

How to use AR for marketing

Now that we’ve talked about how not to do it, let’s get to the good stuff; how you should be using it.

Like any type of marketing, using AR involves planning and knowing what you want to accomplish so you can avoid simply having AR that just accesses otherwise easily accessible content.

And before we get into the nuts and bolts, we should also discuss the types of AR you can use for marketing. There are mainly three types you have to know: marker-based AR, markerless AR (or Web AR) and what we’re calling “Stationary Screen AR” where the AR is on a fixed screen rather than a person’s phone.

Marker based AR

This type of AR relies on markers to tell it where to show the digital overlay. Many of the aforementioned “interactive objects” use this type of AR.

Markerless Web AR

This type of AR does not require any markers to tell it where to put the overlay. Instead, the AR program detects flat surfaces like floors to “place” the object. The AR is all browser based and can be accessed via links so there is no need to have customers download an app, either, which is another advantage of this type of AR. It cuts out a step that many people would stop at (downloading an unnecessary app), so more visitors will enjoy your AR experience.

Stationary Screen AR

This third type of AR uses stationary screens, like at a bus shelter, for example. People wouldn’t require using their own phones to see it. Rather, the AR is projected onto the screen, but the screen is set up to make it look like it’s not there. (So, it’s made to look more like a window where you can still see the real world behind it.)

Now that you know your options, here is how to develop an AR marketing strategy along with some examples of AR being used well by businesses.

Know your goals

Any time you develop a marketing campaign, you should start with your goals and using AR for marketing is no exception. Know what you are trying to accomplish with your use of AR before you start using it so it doesn’t come off as a hollow advertising gimmick. If your goal is to cut down on returns and increase customer satisfaction, then you might opt for AR that lets customers see something in their homes or on their body before they buy it. If your goal is to increase brand engagement, you might opt to try and create some kind of interactive game with AR or use it as more of a storytelling device.

Unlike designing a Facebook ad, developing AR is more intensive and will require more of an investment, so knowing exactly what you’re trying to accomplish is key before you jump in.

Have a specific AR strategy

Again, as with other forms of marketing and advertising, you should have a strategy for using your AR where you can measure the effectiveness to see if it is working or not. Sit down and come up with something you can experiment with and test. Will the AR be part of the advertising itself or will it be a permanent tool customers can use once you get them to your store?

Choose your AR agency wisely

AR can run the gamut from being merely a two-dimensional photo that is overlaid onto reality all the way to a highly detailed 3D model that looks like it is actually in the room with you. When you choose your agency, look at their past work and the samples they have on offer for you to try out. (Any Web AR agency should have freely available samples for you to check out.)

AR is an investment, so invest wisely.

If you’re an ultra-small business, there are a few freely available tools to use, like Apple’s ARKit, Google’s ARCore and Facebook’s AR Studio.

Let’s look at some ways to use augmented reality in marketing along with some examples of how businesses are already using them.

1. Gamification

There is a reason a lot of early childhood education is done via games. People love playing games and they learn faster if they’re having fun. That’s why Pokemon Go got so popular for that one summer. It showed the power of using AR when there is a gaming element to it. Up until that point, most people just saw their phone cameras as purely cameras. Pokemon Go showed them those cameras could be so much more.

It also showed marketers that merely putting a cartoon character into a real environment only kept people’s attention for so long (exactly one summer). People do love seeing those little rascals on their phone screens sitting on the real sidewalk, and that may be enough to coax people to go to a certain spot, but there needs to be more.

A couple of years ago, Google Maps began using animated Web AR characters to point the way for people when they are using its walking navigation abilities.

Location dependent businesses and organizations can use similar tactics:
  • Museums that contain relics and tour operators that visit ruins could show visitors how something used to look with the help of AR.
  • Large stores could ask visitors to enter a shopping list and then, via AR overlay, show them the best way to get all their items in the quickest possible way. There is potential to advertise to them along the way.
  • A business could do something similar to Google Maps and have a series of posters leading from one point (say a bus shelter) to their location. Each time someone scanned the marker on the poster, a character could appear pointing the way to the next poster until the person arrived at the location where they could take advantage of a discount as a reward for getting there.

AR gamification can also be literal games.

Ben & Jerry’s made an AR game for a flavor of ice cream that contained marshmallows where people tried to catch virtual marshmallows in their mouths. This made a memorable connection with customers and they would likely remember that the next time they went to buy ice cream.

Introducing elements of gaming into your AR marketing will help make a quicker and deeper connection with the people you are trying to reach.

2. Experiential Marketing

Major brands are spending big bucks to use AR to give passersby an exciting experience. Visa, for example, set up a huge display in a mall that let visitors “interact” with various animals. And, they didn’t even need to get their phones out to do it thanks to the big-budget display. Coca-Cola, in conjunction with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), similarly gave visitors to a museum in London the chance to “pet” polar bears using a giant AR setup. Participants also did not require the use of their phones to interact with this particular installation, either.
While the reactions to these big installations are great, the reality is that Visa’s brand really has nothing to do with animals. While Coca-Cola does use polar bears in its Christmas marketing campaigns, they also don’t really have anything to do with the brand. It’s likely that visitors would remember this novel experience more than they would remember which brand happened to host it. Not to mention that installations like this would easily cost in the tens of thousands of dollars.

A brand that did something similar, but to better effect, was The Walking Dead, which used a bus shelter to display zombies on a real city street. Because they used a stationary screen, people didn’t have to bother getting out their phones to participate in this marketing campaign (in fact, they didn’t even know they were participating).
What makes this one better than the Visa installation is that The Walking Dead is full of zombies and the show is meant to frighten people, so the campaign directly ties into the show rather than using characters that have nothing to do with its brand.

3. Try before you buy

AR allows customers to try out products (or, at least, see an approximation of them) before they make a purchase. Snapchat’s goofy filters that placed various funny eyes and other features on people have given way to more serious AR tools like the one in Sephora’s app, which allows users to try on makeup using their phone’s selfie camera and see what it will look like on them.
Various companies that sell eyeglasses and shoes have also adopted this kind of “selfie AR” to let customers try on their wares virtually and clothing companies have also started offering try before you buy options for people. Some have even introduced a bit of gamification where customers can invite friends to virtually hang out and they can all vote on what outfit looks the best on someone.

There are even AR mirrors out there for customers who like to shop in person, but who don’t want to be bothered going into a cramped change room and trying on outfits. The mirror shows visitors what a given outfit would look like on them when they stand in front of it.

On the other end of the try before you buy spectrum are products like furniture. IKEA’s app allows you to see any of their hundreds of products inside your own home using your phone. Wayfair, Target and Amazon are all offering this view-in-place option for products and you can also see what a particular color of paint or a piece of art would look like on your walls.

If you wanted to go the non-app route, you could do this same thing, but use Web AR so customers don’t need to download an app first.

Each of these use case scenarios adds significant value to a shopper’s experience and gives them a sense of ownership over the product because they can go beyond visualizing it and actually see it sitting in their rooms with them.

It also helps to cut down on returns, as shoppers can get a better sense of whether they’ll like something.

4. Enhanced Storytelling

AR can help enhance your brand’s storytelling by immersing customers in a story rather than just having them read it or passively look at a screen. Keep in mind that when we talk about enhanced storytelling, we’re not just talking about scanning a code and having something pop up to tell you the story. This just makes it another passive experience that doesn’t elicit emotions. Rather, the AR should play a role in the storytelling while getting the viewer to be an active participant so it elicits an emotional reaction to this.

Although he wasn’t advertising anything, Abhishek Singh took a (relatively) familiar story from the Japanese horror movie The Ring and made the main character come to life via AR. This type of experience immerses the viewer in the experience and elicits emotion (fear and anxiety in this case), similar to the aforementioned Walking Dead advert.
You can put a marker on your product packaging that somehow relates the product to your brand story. Use your imagination and see what you can come up with to make it interactive and memorable.

It’s not absolutely necessary to tie your AR capability to your native app. In fact, it’s probably best not to because customers generally don’t like downloading brand apps since they take up phone space and usually only have one or two purposes.

Rather than making your AR app-dependent, you can go the route of:
  • Web-based AR where it shows in a web browser like Chrome.
  • Banner ads (Augmented Reality Digital Placements).
  • Facebook Messenger bots that support AR.
  • Social media platforms like Snapchat and Instagram.
  • Bus shelters and other places you can have stationary screen AR.

The possibilities for using AR in marketing are numerous and they’re only going to grow. By using the technology to add value to the consumer experience you can get them to make an emotional connection with your brand, which is the best possible outcome of any marketing campaign.