Hunting For Consumer ROI
And no purer a dream has been dreamt...and dreamt, and dreamt, and dreamt - at least since the bizarre CueCat device of 2000. Wired, along with Forbes and others, were among the magazines that first tried to link the printed page to the digital realm via a code scanning device that looked a lot like an adult sex toy. Maybe I was traumatized by that experience, but I still get the willies when I see experiments with mobile scan codes. At the risk of re-igniting a flame war over QR codes that breaks out here every once in a while, I like the image search approach to mobile scanning. Kooaba, the Barnes & Noble app and several others before it, index a range of magazine pages or CD, book and video covers so that a phone image can trigger some mobile event. Image search not only preserves the original creative a user snaps but even calls greater attention to it. The process involves you in the visual. I understand why magazines and their advertisers would like that model, and hope that somehow, for some bizarre reason, we all fantasize about it.
The technology actually works well, when it works. From the downloaded app I took images of the ad pages in challenging lighting conditions, with glare and shadows everywhere. Alas, the kooaba app itself crashed repeatedly on me as I piled on the images and in the process lost the snaps I was making. Wired enlisted 47 advertisers for this project from Shell to Vizio, Qwest to Bulova, so there was a lot for the eager gadget geek to snap and send. All according to the advertiser, the app returns a page of options for sending to others a link to the page you snapped, posting to Twitter, going to the advertiser's page, sometime calling the vendor directly, and occasionally starting a video. The level of involvement was all over the map, which leads me to what is becoming a refrain of mobile marketing in 2009: This is a test. This is only a test.
Advertisers are not the only ones in the value chain merely "experimenting" with mobile marketing. Marketers aren't the only ones hunting for the ROI either. So are consumers. Every time I click on a mobile ad, every time I engage in a noble new approach to mobilizing media (via short code, 2D code or SMS prompt), I as a consumer have no idea what I am going to get and generally get a poor payoff. Perhaps a Wired reader will get a cheap thrill out of seeing his phone actually recognize a printed page and return some generally meaningless link. Believe me, that thrill wears off after the fifth snap and yet another prompt to "Twitter this." Twitter what? A watch ad? In whose weird branding fantasy would I want to Twitter a watch ad?
Which is not to say that the consumer ROI couldn't be there. When Barnes and Noble or Amazon's apps have me take a snap of an item, they return real and predictable value in the form of reviews, pricing, product details, a buy button. Even in this Wired issue, an advertiser like Shell sent back a link to a genuinely entertaining three-minute video about the ad's topic, energy efficiency. But most of the returned links are just passing me onto the sponsor's non-mobile-ready Web site. I should Twitter, Digg, or email this? For the most part the kooaba and Wired experiment is a step in the right direction that also unwittingly illustrates how much farther we have to go.
I used the term "predictable" to describe the good experience of both Amazon and B&N apps, because I think stabilizing expectations and creating more consistent, seamless experiences is going to be the very big hurdle mobile marketing has to overcome to make its ROI case with consumers. By the way, it is arguable whether much of digital display and rich-media advertising has gotten past this challenge with consumers, either. I have no idea what to expect at the other side of most online marketing clicks, except perhaps the direct marketing calls to action in search and direct response media.
What would it take to get there? Let's just use the case of the current Wired magazine issue and publisher Mittman's own stated goal of using "emerging technologies to augment what an advertisement says and how you experience it." First, all pages of the magazine should be "mobilized" so they return on the investment of snapping and sending a pic. The experience needs to be holistic and follow the experience of the magazine itself. As a consumer, I don't just want to activate ads in a magazine; I want to activate a magazine. In most cases, these programs have focused on the marvels of the technology rather than the potential of the experience.
If marketers and publishers really took the "experience" more seriously, then they would apply some of their native smarts in design and editorial to make the process enjoyable, not just momentarily amazing. When I snap a page, the mobile app should recreate that image or editorial that inspired me to snap. The kooaba app, like others I have seen, gives you a microscopic thumbnail of the page you clicked and a cold, standardized menu of prompts for actions to take. "Twitter me" yadda yadda. Again, Twitter what? Where is the "augmentation?" What are you about to do for me? What is my ROI? I would prefer having the page I just snapped fill the mobile screen and then let me flip up menu options. This may seem like a petty request, but I think one of the problems with "mobile activation" schemes like this is their sheer geekiness. They interrupt the experience that inspired me to jump through the hoop, then they let me land in a meaningless place.
Follow the Amazon/B&N lead on this. When I use the image search in those apps, I really am clicking into the object that made me make an investment. The object is reiterated and enriched. I dug into my pocket, fired up the phone, found and opened the app, took a picture and sent it in. I made an investment. And my ROI on that is a link to a corporate Web site? A crappy video I see on TV twenty times a day anyway? A prompt to "Twitter this"? I think there really are ways to "augment" media via mobile, but I think more attention first needs to be paid to the experience that brought us there -- the TV show, the book or the magazine.