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A First-Timer's Guide to Turning AR Into ROI The good news for your company is that AR is widely available to nearly anyone who wants to adapt it -- using a tool which, would you believe, is on Facebook?

By Stephen Nations

Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.

Busakorn Pongparnit | Getty Images

It's the most wonderful time of the year for retailers -- more so now than ever. Cyber Monday has officially taken the reins as the most popular shopping day in the United States. First, this uber-shopping day, in 2017, eclipsed Black Friday by roughly $1.6 billion , Then, this year, 2018, Cyber Monday sales grew another 20 percent, approaching a historic mark of nearly $8 billion.

But as awesome as those stats may sound, an even more noticeable shift for retailers isn't the compounding growth of Cyber Monday sales, it's the spillage of what used to be Black Friday into a five-day event. Sales on Thanksgiving Day increased by 30 percent, and online sales on Black Friday also jumped by over 20 percent, year over year, ompared to last year.

All of which is to say that at this point, if you're in the ecommerce game, there's more to go around now -- especially in this holiday period -- than ever before. Yet, with all that noise and all those players on the field, how can you, as an online retailer, make your marketing stand out from the horde of your competitors'? This season, it's easy: augmented reality (AR)

Related: How Augmented Reality Is Going to Transform Ecommerce

While AR technology isn't new (Morton Heilig's Sensorama was tested as long ago as 1956), its incubation period has been so prolonged, and its entrance into our daily lives so gradual, that many people today consider AR the same way they consider self-driving cars -- on the verge of being ubiquitous but not quite ready for mass adoption.

Even Tim Cook stated as recently as 2017 that the technology "didn't exist" to make quality AR glasses yet. That's not to say that Cook was wrong, of course, but sentiments like his go a long way toward altering public perception.

The AR gold rush

Despite what experts may say about the technological and financial limitations brands face when diving into the deep end of augmented reality, the numbers say that now is the time. Consumers are primed and ready to be reached through AR technology, as Apple and Google already have placed over half a billion AR-capable devices in the wild. That number is expected to grow to over 4 billion by 2020 and generate over $200 billion in AR/VR spending by the same time, according to IDC.

What does that mean for business owners and marketers? There's gold in them thar' hills! A lot of it. In fact, global revenue from AR marketing is expected to vault from $430 million in 2018 to over $2.5 billion in 2022, according to eMarketer. Big brands like Ikea, Sephora, and Lowe's are just a few examples of large brands that are leveraging AR to connect users more closely to their products and increase conversions.

Diving into the deep end

Recently, my company, Drive Social Media, found itself thrown into AR with little-to-no experience developing anything quite in the same ballpark. We're a social media marketing agency that works with small business owners and franchises to create, place, optimize and track paid social ads. Notice how I didn't mention anything about AR.

We'd had success working with professional sports organizations in the past and had been laser-focused on establishing a partnership with the NHL hockey team, the St. Louis Blues. The Blues were attractive to us on a number of levels, but what we really liked about the team personnel during our preliminary talks was their desire to be at the forefront of technological innovation in the NHL -- specifically with AR.

While our graphic design department is supremely talented, nobody had any real experience designing AR effects. Our operating partner, Josh Sample, had attended the 2018 Facebook Developer Conference in May when Facebook announced its rollout of an AR creator studio -- later renamed Spark -- to bring AR creation ability to any businesses on the platform.

We took a crash-course on AR development, pitched the Blues a Pokėmon GO-style citywide augmented reality scavenger hunt and were able to develop the entire project in about three weeks. That's not to toot our own horn, it's a testament to how quickly Spark allows even first-time users to build game-changing technology. The results were incredibly strong and have already been parlayed into continued AR projects (and thus a new stream of revenue) for our company.

What may be good news for your company is that AR is widely available to anyone who wants to use it to drive ROI. Conveniently, this can be done solely through something that almost everyone is already familiar with: Facebook.

"Spark" an engaging effect.

As mentioned, Spark is the name of Facebook's AR creator studio. While Google and Apple released their own AR developer studio in 2017, we found that Spark enabled us to create, upload, launch and track the entire project in the same place. Our execution consisted of hanging large banners with GPS-enabled AR-effect triggers on them in various locations throughout the city. So, for us, it made sense to be able to house everything in a single spot.

But it's not just such practical aspects that make Spark a fantastic resource for your business. This technology's approachable interface and intuitive intelligence make it simple for even novice designers to create compelling 3D AR graphics. Spark's software also uses a built-in face mesh that you can put right into your canvas, then just plug and play with colors and objects to create face filters.

In the event that you have zero design experience, it's pretty simple to nail down effect-anchoring, dimensions and functionality through basic trial and error.

Incentivize usage

While many businesses have hardly grown accustomed to using AR, consumers certainly have. Industries like finance, transportation, health care, and retail are already experiencing a major disruption as a result of the proliferation of AR. In fact, 74 percent of consumers in a DigitalBridge study expected retailers to use AR tools to strengthen their offerings.

Not only do consumers expect AR, but they are also willing to reward brands who use it. A recent study by Retail Perceptions reported that 40 percent of consumers polled said they would be willing to pay more for a product if they could experience it through augmented reality.

Related: 3 Trends That Will Shape Your Marketing Efforts in 2018

Consumers are past the point of being wowed by AR, but they still want to use it if it provides them with a valuable or unique experience. Create some incentivization to use it, and users will view the experience as the cherry on top of the value they receive. The majority of those who completed our own scavenger hunt did so because they knew the grand prize at the end was a pair of season tickets. However, the feedback we repeatedly got went beyond that: Participants said the experience was a fun; and it provided a enjoyable way to connect the team, city and community, as well.

Make it feel natural.

People love using new technology, but they don't love learning to use it. Think about the early days of MP3 players. One of the first consumer products to hit the market was Diamond Multimedia's Rio in 1998. While the Rio was a new and more "efficient" way of consuming audio content, its upload times were excruciatingly slow, and the device itself could store only 32MB, or around thirty minutes of music.

Even the iPod took years to catch on, netting about half a million sales in its first year of existence. It took until 2006 -- eight years after the Rio hit the market -- before the iPod, and thus portable MP3 players in general, became ubiquitous. These players had to feel and operate with the same speed and effectiveness as a Walkman before the masses were ready to adopt.

Think about this concept with your AR initiatives. Opening the application needs to feel seamless, and using it has to feel familiar. We created a microsite for our application and linked buttons that launched effects to the Facebook camera. Once the effect was launched, the camera would wait a few seconds, then redirect the user back to the microsite before it continued playing. Allowing users to complete the activation with the Facebook camera primed them for this newer technology by utilizing the familiarity and function of an older one.

Overall, the value of AR is obvious, and the ability to integrate it into your marketing mix is at your fingertips -- regardless of your level of experience. Don't let a lack of education cause your business to delay its ability to connect and build a relationship with your current and potential customers. Follow these steps to turn your first AR project into ROI.

Related: How Augmented Reality Has Changed Selfies Forever (Infographic)

Stephen Nations is the director of public relations for Drive Social Media, a St. Louis and Nashville-area-based digital marketing agency. He is obsessed with creating compelling content and finding new ways to connect brands with their target audience.

Stephen Nations

Director, Public Relations, Drive Social Media

Stephen Nations is the director of public relations for Drive Social Media, a St. Louis and Nashville-area-based digital marketing agency. He is obsessed with creating compelling content and finding new ways to connect brands with their target audience. 

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