Convergence Fantasies And Interactive Dreams

Bridging the physical and digital worlds has been a publisher's dream since the Web first started exerting pressure on print media. The infamous Cuecat hand scanner aside, I have tracked a number of mobile initiatives over the years: 2D scan codes, SMS keyword bugs in ads and editorial, and phone cam images. All of these solutions chase the same fantasy. The phone becomes the activation device for print, letting you effectively click on content to receive some deeper experience in return. In the fairy-tale world that media executives, advertisers and their technology enablers occupy, consumers just can't wait for new and richer ways to relate to our brands. After all, they live for us, don't they?

While I like the idea of a phone-activated print world, I have to say that after trying all these technologies, I still find the current approaches awkward and easily forgettable. SMS interaction usually requires a different keyword for every ad, and the instructions are microscopic in most cases. Scan codes seem to undermine the inherent effectiveness of print advertising, lush imagery and immersion. There is a Catch-22 at work in the system. In order to remind users that some interactive opportunity is available in a print ad, you need to interrupt the experience with an SMS call-out or digital code that only a tech dweeb could find attractive. Without a prompt of some kind, the user likely forgets that interactivty is available at all. But most of all, very few brands and ads really motivate me to ask for more. I am not sure what kind of slathering brand whore these companies imagine to be reading these magazines but I am not it. Is anyone?

With the new issue of Men's Health, mobile tech provider SnapTell tries to address some of these problems with ease and ubiquity. Snapping a picture of every ad in the August issue and emailing it to returns some kind of contextually relevant material. The Dolce & Gabbana ad I snapped rendered an SMS push to a Macy's purchase page for the advertised cologne. The Inifiniti ad downloaded a wallpaper. The Garmin ad delivered a branded tagline in SMS and a WAP push to a mobile site.

SnapTell CEO Gautam Bhargava pitches this as a solution to lingering print-to-phone issues. "The important point is that it is a single call to action," he says. Snap any ads and send them to the same email address. The reader gets a full-page notice early in the issue explaining how every page in the book can be activated the same way. And unlike the scan code solution, this technology is about as standard as SMS at this point. It requires no application download and does not besmirch the ad creative itself. This model also has the advantage of ubiquity. In past iterations, only select ads returned assets. When all content in a book responds in some way, then it is easier for the activation mechanism to become a reflex.

For all of those reasons, SnapTell is getting the attention of print publishers. Rolling Stone ran some enabled ads recently, and five more titles will be rolling out soon, Bhargava tells me. And at the very least advertisers get from this approach some indication of their creative appeal. "We see a clear trend," he says. "The ones that have been creatively done get a good response."

While there are inherent strengths to SnapTell's approach, this image-based search approach may also add new wrinkles to iron out. First, without specific prompts on pages, the user really does need to catch and remember the activation technique as he reads the magazine. This is not a habit that comes naturally and without reminders. As a dweeb covering the industry, I have in mind when I peruse the issue, but is that hurdle much different for most users than asking them to remember they have a scanning app on their phone?

And why would a magazine loyalist want to engage with a third party, when the reader probably should be conversing directly with the print brand? Shouldn't we be sending this message to RollingStone or Men's Health? And, finally, in an invisible system with no prompts in the ads themselves, the user has no idea what they will be getting when they snap and send an ad image. I got several different kinds of responses from the ads, but I had no idea what I was opting into at the outset. There is a persistent call to action -- but not necessarily a reason for the consumer to take the action. Is that enough for a reader?

I don't have the answer to any of these questions, because none of us knows yet whether and how readers really want to interact with their magazines. For a number of obvious reasons, publishers, advertisers and technology providers dream of a convergent future. But do consumers? Do we really want each of our platforms to behave like the other? Or do we carve out different experiences and modes of interaction with the various platforms?

And don't bother asking consumers. We don't know yet, either.

Tags: mobile
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