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Print & Production : The Evolution of Interactive Print

From QR Codes to image recognition, print marketing continues to develop newways to cross boundaries

June 2013 By Theresa Lang
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Today, many marketers are trending away from looking at printed media as their No. 1 channel to reach an intended audience. Digital—including mobile, online advertising, social media buys, corporate websites and others—tends to be a higher priority as marketers see consumers continuing to turn to the Web and, more specifically, accessing the Web via mobile devices.

According to recent comments from Forrester Research analyst Tracy Stokes, consumers today are in control and decide when, where and how they access content. So wouldn't that require marketers to not pick a platform—mobile/online vs. print/offline—but instead find a way to consistently communicate across all channels?

This question is nothing new. There's been an evolution in the past few decades on how to integrate different channels, including printed media and online, stemming from when the World Wide Web became a household term.

The Evolution of Interaction
Likely one of the most popular applications to integrate print and digital is the QR Code, invented in 1994. A QR Code is read by an imaging device, such as the camera on your mobile phone, and launches a browser that brings the user directly to the intended URL. However, the QR Code and similar technologies, such as digital watermarking (the technique of embedding an imperceptible code into a printed document), can be considered stale today as technology evolves. And in fact, according to a study conducted by Forrester, only 5 percent of Americans scanned a QR Code between May and July of 2011.

Today's most talked-about technology that integrates mobile and print is image recognition technology; more specifically, visual search. By leveraging visual search, printed media can be made truly interactive. By definition, visual search technology taps recognition algorithms, data authoring and mobile technologies that work together to connect information on a printed piece with digital information or services on the Internet, or actions that can be taken on a mobile device—like making a phone call.

As a marketer, you might be asking: "What does this mean to me and which will give me the best results?" The answer to these questions will depend on what campaign objectives you have. However, from a technological point of view, the newer technology means the most for you.

Visual search allows for many more ways to be flexible with your marketing approach, delivering the most up-to-date information on your brand to your audience. You can easily deploy visual search in your campaigns when it makes sense to provide the user with a truly unique experience, as opposed to a static one-time interaction.

What are the key differences between these types of barcoding and watermarking tools and visual search technology? See how they compare.

Monetizing Brand Engagement
One of the most important benefits of these interactive marketing solutions is brand engagement. The push to mobile is hotter today than it's ever been. Everyone from Facebook to Starbucks is seeking new ways to have a presence on mobile, and monetize it.

Monetizing brand engagement is a huge benefit to marketers, as it not only helps drive awareness, but can also lead to more analytical ways of knowing what interests consumers. That gives companies more leverage to be relevant. The back-end analytics collected by visual search tools can further enhance the marketer's knowledge of end-user behaviors.

With technologies like visual search and other image recognition services, marketers can truly enhance their levels of brand engagement. First of all, it is very easy to use. Second, and more importantly, there's previously unavailable content flexibility—the ability to instantly change and update as necessary.

Imagine if your company had a billboard in a subway station promoting a new phone but, since that billboard's been posted, there have been many new feature enhancements to the device. With QR Codes and the like, there is no way for companies to update the embedded content in the code itself, like a phone number or URL. Once it is printed, the content of the QR Code is fixed. QR Codes linking to redirect URLs (also know as URL forwarders) can be altered with back-end updates, altering the content the user accesses when he/she clicks. However, with the newer image recognition technology, these drive-to sites and mobile device actions (like making a phone call or sending an SMS) can all be updated instantly to ensure users see the most up-to-date information, helping to ensure the brand is consistent across all engagement platforms. Thus, it can encourage multiple interactions.

As consumers today continue to want what they want when they want it, delivering that content in a way that allows this to happen is crucial to the success of a marketing campaign. Marketers must give their audiences options instantaneously, while delivering the message they want the audience to absorb.

Deeper Benefits
The features of image recognition technology are not solely for the direct benefit of consumers. Take for example how such innovative technologies can help publishers strengthen relationships with their print advertisers.

News & Tech, a magazine that covers technology integration in newspaper, digital and hybrid production, was seeing a decrease in interest to advertise in print and sought ways to bring digital advertisers back to the printed space. Leveraging visual search technology, News & Tech was able to offer its advertisers a way to link their online and offline presence to help them ensure a more consistent presence across both platforms.

According to publisher Mary Van Meter, the visual search technology allows News & Tech "to build so many more elements into our publication ... It's very, very easy to do. … The value [for advertisers] is enormous, because they can add so many other elements to their ads. … It allows me to offer them so many more services in a publication such as News & Tech."

Today, there are many options for both business-to-consumer and business-to-business marketers as they look to become more interactive and tap new platforms to promote their campaigns. Successful campaigns must be dynamic and strive to ensure that not only do consumers receive the information they want, when they want it on the platform they want, but that content is as up-to-date and compelling as possible.

Engagement is key; it's no longer profitable to talk at consumers with stale content. With these new technologies, marketers can truly embrace and cross-promote multiple platforms, enabling consistent communications across all touchpoints. A marketer's dream!

Theresa Lang is vice president of software and services at Malvern, Pa.-based imaging and print production solutions provider Ricoh. Reach her at



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