AR And Image Recognition Drive Print2Mobile Growth

Activating print content, specifically magazines, has been over a decade in the making. The smartphone helped accelerate marketer and publisher interest is using mobile codes in editorial and ads as a way to make the oldest of the last century's legacy media more interactive in a 21st century way. Lord knows many of the magazines struggled with gaining traction on the Web. It goes back to the infamous CueCat dedicated print scanner that crashed and burned in 2001. Turning print experiences into digital ones started in earnest with image recognition and simple SMS codes before 2010, but then it migrated to various flavors of 2D codes (QR, watermarking and Microsoft Tags) after that. But in the last year we have seen augmented reality gain favor with a number of titles along with a resurgence of image recognition.

According to Nellymoser, a platform many magazines use for their activation programs, image recognition and AR accounted for 60% of mobile activations in magazines last year. Magazine editorial and design teams seem to prefer these alternatives to QR codes that are generally seen as visually disruptive to the carefully crafted environments that magazines build for readers. They seem to prefer using techniques that are either invisible on the page or that use customized visual cues. AR companies like Aurasma and Blippar, watermarking providers like Digimarc and IR apps like Pounce have all had their appeal to different titles.

At the same time, QR codes are still the preferred approach of advertisers. Nellymoser does a hand count of activations each year in the top 100 magazines in the U.S. What QR codes lack in visual appeal they gain in reach, since the open platform enjoys so many reader apps on many phones. In editorial content only 23.9% of activations were from QR codes. But 60% of the magazine ads with mobile activations last year were using QR.

The company says it found explosive growth in the print2mobile model, with 246% more titles using the method in their editorial. The actual number of mobile experiences counted in the top titles exceeded 13,000, a 54.9% increase over 2012.

The titles making the greatest use of print2mobile were Marie Claire, Esquire and Redbook. In fact, some of these titles were using models that offered some form of mobile complement on every page of some issues. Technology platforms have always argued that the more opportunities a user sees in an issue to “click” via smartphone, the more likely it will be that the behavior catches on.

Among the third parties being used by magazines, Digitmarc (12), Aurasma (8), Layer (6) and Blippar (4) led the pack. But the sheer diversity of these providers suggests the lack of standards.

There seems to have been an important shift in how magazines are defining value in the clickthrough experience for augmented print. For years the standard end experience involved a video of some kind. Now only 12.9% of activations lead to a video, while 68.8% end on a landing page with some usable or shareable content.

Print2mobile is the sort of model that makes so much sense in the abstract, both to marketers and now to publishers. But it is still not clear how much it appeals to readers. Missing in most metrics around the form are solid benchmarks around what share of print readers regularly engage with these codes. Most publishers tell me they share of readers activating pages “is growing” without sharing numbers.

Nellymoser EVP and Chief Digital Officer John Puterbaugh says that most magazines cite a clickthrough rates on print ads of about .1% to .4%, which is no worse than interaction with banner ads. “One important thing that a number of people miss in measuring the activation rates is that they are NOT page views,” he says. “Turning and looking at a physical page is the ‘page view. Scanning it is much more akin to a click-through.” He recommends thinking of it more in terms of a response rate. The impression rate for readers is quite high, and the response rate is respectable. He says that one of the most successful programs they executed saw response rates of 20%.

Magazines have had to contend with numerous problems in making these models work. First, the methods of activating pages are woefully non-standard. With so many companies and technologies hovering around this industry, each magazine title seems to require a different app, often from third parties. Some magazines have integrated a scanner into so-called “companion apps,” but this often requires that a user keep as many apps on their smartphone as they read each month, and they only get used once a month. Even within magazine issues the dissonance between the publication's activation method and the advertisers’ can be daunting.  

Puterbaugh tells me that he sees print2mobile as part of a larger trend toward second-screen technologies and habits across other media. Like TV second-screen apps, music audio recognition and even the emerging medium of mobile-enhanced print books, the enhanced mobile content for magazines is being designed as a companion experience. Here is where users can single out content from the flow of the original medium and engage more deeply or save and share it.

Okay -- maybe. I think print is a special case that is harder to activate, however. My admittedly impressionistic take is that in the digital age reading of print is a deliberately non-digital mode. Thumbing through a magazine is often done in tandem with TV as it always has been or it is being used as the original mobile medium, portable for one-handed use anywhere. But it is an engagement very different from interacting with a screen, and so it takes special effort and a shift in mode to pull out a phone and take a snap of a page. Tearing pages, the traditional way of “activating” content for later use, is still easier and a more natural extension of thumbing through a magazine. Mobile activation still requires a multi-step process of taking the phone out and finding the right app, snapping the image and breaking the zen of page flipping for this very different activity.

This is a new action of “two-screen juggling” that will take a long time to become habitual.     

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