Designing effective augmented reality marketing campaigns

Tram commuters flee a digital zombie in a bogus window paradigm AR campaign. (Image provided courtesy of move121 Werbeagentur GmbH)

Thanks to PokémonGo and SnapChat filters, we now know that consumers are not only interested in augmented reality (AR) technology but also prepared to adopt it into daily life. AR is becoming a social habit — and perhaps more, if the technology’s rapid development lives up to its promise.

Marketers, though, find themselves faced with a problem: consumers may flock to well-executed AR innovations, but often only for the sake of the experience itself. How can AR be leveraged as a gateway rather than as a self-contained product? A PokémonGo-esque offering will only work for the marketer if the audience moves beyond the game along the consumer path.

Dazzling applications of AR can tempt trigger-happy marketers to dive iPhone-first into a tech-driven strategy. But shiny, new toys are never the center of successful marketing campaigns. Profitable marketing depends on informed goal setting before anything else.

Augmented reality clearly can be a valuable tool to meet those goals — indeed, many companies have launched AR campaigns with great success — and it deserves a closer, more balanced look from marketers who feel the urge to begin implementing AR without direction. Specifically, marketers first need to consider campaign goals and target audience before looking at all the different elements of AR.

Campaign goals and target audience

Business Horizons authors Joachim Scholz (California Polytechnic State University) and Andrew Smith (Suffolk University) recommend that would-be AR marketers begin by defining goal and audience parameters with as much specificity as possible. Without a clearly identified audience, not only does intended messaging risk being lost but also investment in and application of AR may be forfeited. Similarly, the intended campaign goal should be narrowed down from endless possible paths: creating awareness for a new product, conveying product knowledge, creating emotional experiences, cultivating communities and relationships, etc.

Users and content

Both the popular and the academic literatures have consistently covered two key aspects of AR campaigns: users and content. Not only do users and content correlate to the core campaign issues of audience and objective/message but they also are the most visible and obvious parts of any AR project.

AR success story ModiFace captures the central relationship of user/content particularly well. Now employed by a wide variety of beauty brands, ModiFace’s augmented reality technology allows cosmetic consumers to ‘try on’ products in real time using a screen interface, merging AR content with users themselves.

However, marketers can’t allow strategy to stall at the level of users and content only. With this in mind, Scholz and Smith identify three other, less flashy aspects of AR marketing: targets, bystanders, and background.


Targets refer to the objects or spaces in the physical world that interact with AR overlay content. While targets are often as obvious as content and users, they can appear passive as compared to levels of engagement and activity from users or interactive AR content.

In the case of ModiFace, the AR target is the user’s own face. Cosmetic or apparel applications of AR make target strategy simple: users volunteer to be the target themselves. But what if the user isn’t the target? Here, marketers must consider questions of target ownership, availability, and ease of use:

· Is the target public property or provided by the user — or something else entirely?

· How common is the target in the user’s environment?

· Will the target require construction on the part of the marketing company?

· Is the target stationary/inaccessible or interactive/accessible?


Bystanders are individuals who observe users engaging with AR applications, either in person (e.g., a friend watching a user try ModiFace while shopping) or via artifacts created from the experience (e.g., through SnapChat posts using filters).

Bystanders represent a double-edged sword to marketers. On one hand, these additional observers provide a chance to expand the marketing message beyond users. On the other hand, bystanders might also undermine the success of an AR campaign by creating peer anxiety. Consider the case of Google Glass. Google Glass failed for a variety of reasons, but chief among these was widespread distaste for how the glasses looked, causing users to avoid wearing them in public where they might be ridiculed.


More subtle than bystanders, background consists of the physical environment and context in which the AR experience occurs. Backgrounds share space with the target, but unlike targets, backgrounds are not augmented.

Similar to bystanders, backgrounds can affect user willingness to engage with an AR campaign. Whereas bystanders affect user behavior due to social pressure, backgrounds affect user behavior due to matters of usability. Either factor can make or break an AR campaign.

For example, IKEA’s AR catalog app has proven useful to consumers largely due to how well it integrates background into the AR experience; customers use the app to see scaled projects of furniture in their own homes. The usefulness and success of the app relies on users’ abilities to leverage the background of their apartments and houses to aid the purchasing process.

Action steps

Managing all these AR factors requires strategic planning, especially to ensure less visible elements such as bystanders and background aren’t forgotten. A starter checklist will include:

1. Define audience and goals: Identify who the audience is and what the marketing goals are for these specific audience members. Drill into audience demographics and prioritize alignment between goals and the chosen audience.

2. Plan the AR fundamentals: Strategize how AR content, users, and targets (i.e., the most visible elements) will function in the experience and interact with each other. Establish the user’s role and responsibilities throughout each step of the experience.

3. Account for context: Delineate and consider bystanders and background so the context encourages user participation. Walk through how these indirect factors will integrate with the core AR fundamentals (i.e., users, content, and targets).

Beyond these three basic steps, any successful campaign will expand on consumer engagement from all possible angles (user-brand, user-user, user-bystander, etc.) and elaborate on the complexities of each AR factor in relation to the specific campaign at hand. This will require leveraging data from past campaigns and known brand assets/audiences, as well as exploring current research and best practices for guidance. To help marketers incorporating AR into their marketing mix, Scholz and Smith founded an online magazine called MKTGsquad, where they share in-depth analyses of successful AR campaigns.

Continuing with AR marketing

AR integration with marketing — as well as with countless other branches of business—will continue to evolve whether or not marketers have adequate resources to inform campaign building. But given the investment that is currently required to launch AR initiatives, marketers need ongoing research to guide them within the developing arena of augmented reality tech.

Joachim Scholz and Andrew Smith’s work, “Augmented reality: Designing immersive experiences that maximize consumer engagement,” recently received the Business Horizons 2016 Best Article Award for its contribution to this area of study.

Resources for marketers in Scholz and Smith’s article include:

· The authors’ ENTANGLE model for assessing and planning AR initiatives;

· Consumer engagement profiles and suggestions;

· An augmented reality concept glossary; and

· Further recommendations for AR marketing design.

Based on information from Joachim Scholz and Andrew Smith’s “Augmented reality: Designing immersive experiences that maximize consumer engagement” (Business Horizons, 59(2), pp. 149–161). The article will be free to access through the end of the year 2017, and can be found here:

Business Horizons is an academic business journal for practitioners, offering immediately applicable resources grounded in research. Information on how to access Business Horizons content can be found here:

Show your support

Clapping shows how much you appreciated Business Horizons’s story.