In the print industry, we like to talk about how effective physical communications are, even in today’s digital world. But digital communication is not without its strengths and unique capabilities, leading to an explosion in multichannel campaigns in recent years. It only makes sense that now communicators are looking for new ways to leverage and blend both print and digital’s individual strengths for even greater results.


    One of the reasons print stays around is that it, literally, stays around longer than digital communications. A marketing email can be deleted without opening it in less than a second. Even if you trash an unopened envelope, you’re holding it in your hand longer than it takes you to ignore a digital message. In fact, 56% of respondents to a recent survey said they prefer to read marketing information from printed sources rather than marketing emails. Billions of people carry smartphones in their pockets and purses, and these tiny devices have the capability to bring hundreds or even thousands of ideas and messages to our attention in a given day. Printed collateral has an edge because it’s less common and it’s harder to ignore.

    That said, digital collateral does some things that print simply cannot. A postcard cannot communicate the complete, complex rules of entering a contest or redeeming a discount (very small print aside). A traditional flyer cannot play a video. A print campaign that’s not connecting with its intended audience may have its problems go unnoticed until after the campaign has ended, and updating it can require costly reprints. Digital collateral alone allows communicators to provide interactive experiences that not only foster engagement but also provide opportunities for recipients to shape the way they engage with a brand to result in a more enjoyable experience for them.

    That was true, anyway.

    Now, thanks to the rise of augmented reality and related technologies, the line between physical and digital communication is blurring. Augmented reality, or AR, takes elements of the real world, typically through a camera, and adds to it. (Perhaps the most famous example is Pokémon Go, the mobile game that allows users to battle and capture familiar cartoon critters superimposed on the backdrop of the real world and rewards players for walking around outside on the lookout for new enemies and in-game experiences. This is different from virtual reality, or VR, which takes place wholly in artificial environments.) The increasing popularity and growing use cases of AR are opening up new ways for people to interact with their world – and with brands.

    For communicators, this presents an opportunity to overlay digital experiences on top of physical media. An example: a flyer arrives in the mail advertising an upcoming concert, and, through an AR interface, the recipient can check out videos of the band’s past live shows, buy tickets, or invite their friends. AR can even make basic calls to action for physical mail easier to complete and, therefore, make them more likely to succeed: Instead of clipping a coupon or tearing out a return mail form, recipients can save coupon data directly to their smartphones or fill out a digital form instantly from their tablet.

    AR provides interested recipients the opportunity to learn more about the ideas in a physical mail piece, whether it’s in the form of videos, static documents, or websites, among other options. This makes effective physical mail pieces even more effective. Once the physical communication’s hook succeeds and a recipient begins exploring its AR potential, they spend more time with a communicator’s messaging and are presented with more opportunities to engage with calls to action.

    Some AR solutions even allow communicators to update campaigns on the fly. Historically, if a print campaign was ineffective, you might not know until it was over, and if you wanted to try again, you’d have to put the money into printing a new set of collateral – and then wait just as long, again, to see if it worked. With some AR-enabled print solutions, campaign metrics can be accessed and appropriate updates made. That means no costly reprints, while still maintaining the flexibility to adjust to customer feedback and response rates. For example, is a 15%-off coupon not being redeemed as often as you’d hoped? Now you can bump the discount to 20%, and roll the change out to the collateral out in the field, then reassess. These solutions allow users to access new analytics and implement changes as frequently as every hour, for example.

    Perhaps most excitingly, this kind of flexibility and responsiveness is just the start. AR provides opportunities for all kinds of communication, response, and engagement. And as AR continues to grow, more innovators will set their sights on the technology, pushing it in new and interesting directions. We are on the precipice of many exciting new opportunities in the way we communicate via, and interact with, printed collateral. The only question is, how are you going to make the most of it?


    Annette McCrary is Director, Strategic Marketing Programs, Commercial & Industrial Printing Business Group, Ricoh USA, Inc. She has a demonstrated history of working in the information technology and services industry and is skilled in print management, document imaging, sales, managed print services, and strategic planning.

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