Hunting For Consumer ROI

Being the glutton for mobile marketing punishment that I am, I spent a hunk of time the other night taking phone cam snaps of the latest issue of Wired magazine. In a partnership with kooaba, the Conde Nast book is mobilizing almost all of its ad pages so that users can snap a picture of most ads in the November issue and get content in return from the kooaba iPhone/Android app. We have seen this model before, and in a number of permutations over the years. As Wired publisher Howard Mittman says in his announcement in the issue, "Imagine an ad that comes to life - that uses emerging technologies to augment what an advertisement says and how you experience it." This may be his and the magazine industry's fantasy. I am not sure I have heard a consumer utter this wish.

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.

6 comments about "Hunting For Consumer ROI".
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  1. Dean Collins from Cognation Inc, October 20, 2009 at 2:08 p.m.

    Steve, can you share some insight on how people are supposed to know that 'this' magazines advertisments are 'internet enhanced'?

    I've always argued that yes QR codes may be visually distracting but it was an obvious sign that the ads were enhanced and the methodology of interacting with QR codes is well defined and understood.

    Kooaba is hardly a known name (i'd never heard of it until your article), so how will people know to download this application first?

    Also is it an open standard? is it available on more than 1 mobile os? is their a license fee for every advertiser or are people free an unencumbered to created their own Kooaba enabled links? Also is there anyway to enable interaction when not in cell range (like when in a NY subway?).

    Dean Collins

  2. Steve Smith from Mediapost, October 20, 2009 at 2:28 p.m.


    There is a full page note from the publisher about ten pages in that outlines all the program, the download and the list of enabled ad pages in the magazine. This has been a persistent problem with these programs -- just calling attention to them. I found this page too subdued to grab a user's attention in such an otherwise graphics-driven book like Wired.

    It is a discrete app for iPhone and Android.

  3. Jeffrey Sass from .CLUB Domains, LLC, October 20, 2009 at 3:26 p.m.

    Steve, you hit the nail on the head. The challenge with any of these (scanning/photo linking) platforms is to deliver a consistent experience (and thus, proper expectations by the consumer) whenever they scan/snap something. This is especially difficult to achieve when a "platform" is used across multiple brands/advertisers, each one taking a different approach to what the "link" delivers. That was the death knell for the CueCat, IMHO, as in some cases you scanned an item and got great data, and in other cases you scanned an item and got nothing - literally. Back in the day I was co-founder of, an early leader in this space, and we put a tremendous effort behind building a database of reasonable results for more than 20 million items. Even so, consumer adoption of "scanning" products and ads lagged far behind the promise of the technology. As devices, networks, camera phones, etc. have dramatically improved, this concept still has potential, but I think it will not be ready for primetime until there is a reasonably consistent (and value adding) user experience in all instances. To Wired's credit, at least they keep trying to keep the dream alive. ;-)

    -Jeff Sass

  4. Steve Smith from Mediapost, October 20, 2009 at 4:15 p.m.

    @Jeffrey And yet when the expectations are set and an app like the Amazon or B&N app (or even the UPC scanner app on the Android platform) deliver what you expect and want, it is a beautiful thing that so obviously has promise.

  5. David Shor from Prove, October 21, 2009 at 1:37 a.m.

    A technology in search of a problem.

    Don't get me wrong--as a digital strategy guy I love new mediatech.

    The big advertisers had better line up quickly. This technology has a chance to get old/overused quick.

    Can they develop an iPhone app that will recycle the printed ads?

    David Shor

  6. Howie Goldfarb from Blue Star Strategic Marketing, October 21, 2009 at 11:13 a.m.


    Great freaking post as always. I actually ponder the value of this technology as the web on phones and the interface get better. Where is one reading the magazine? At home with my desktop or laptop nearby? Then the technology is useless. If I was not already seeing an ad then going online to the advertiser's website why would I snap a picture to do it on my phone. It seems to me without a hook like something free or some stellar content the number of times one would be only with magazine and phone and decide to launch into their mobile web site/content will be minimal. And if the interface is easy how much time does this save from launching to the content on your own from a url listed on a print ad?

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