Best Buy's Augmented-Reality Ad Dazzles, but Does It Work?

Q&A: Retailer's Spencer Knisely on the 3-D Toshiba Laptop in This Week's Sunday Circular

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NEW YORK ( -- Best Buy got props on Sunday when its weekly supplement came equipped with a 3-D notebook computer -- that is, if you had a webcam and held the circular up to it, you'd see a 3-D image of a Toshiba laptop, thanks to the technology known as augmented reality.

About 6,500 people tried out Best Buy's augmented reality insert -- more than double the company's expectations.
About 6,500 people tried out Best Buy's augmented reality insert -- more than double the company's expectations.
Augmented reality has garnered more than its share of enthusiasm from early adopters and tech geeks, but its marketing value is yet to be determined. Is it a passing fad or truly useful in creating richer digital-marketing experiences? In Best Buy's case, the weekly insert was sent to its normal circulation of 43 million and, on Sunday, about 6,500 tried it out -- more than double the company's expectations. Still, it's a small number and may temper other marketers' augmented-reality expectations. We talked to Spencer Knisely, director-brand identity, print and design at Best Buy, who shared early results and promised this wouldn't be the last we'd see of AR at Best Buy.

Ad Age: Explain the reasoning behind this circular.

Spencer Knisely: There's lots of talk about the impending demise of newspapers and circular readership, and there's truth and fiction in that issue. But certainly all parties can agree it's in transformation. Inserts have a role to play in their own migration. We started this journey [of making circulars interactive] with SMS messaging and IVR [or interactive voice response]. ... Both of those return to your customer ratings and reviews and a link to something else. We're trying to think of the circular, instead of being the end of all promotional activity, as the beginning. It's a great organizing tool for promotional activity, but it doesn't offer all the different connections that we want.

Ad Age: How did people use it?

Mr. Knisely: It was hard to predict what the adoption would be. We knew a couple of things. We knew we have weekly circ of 46 million, and we had spoken with our business team, computing and computing accessories team and said, 'What's the install base of webcams?' They believed 20% of households have a functioning webcam. So knowing those things, we projected maybe 2,500 people would give it a shot. We were surprised to learn many more connected with and used the experience -- 6,500 was the last report, and that was just for one-day activity [on Sunday]. In fact, 78% of the people that actually went to the site wanting to see the experience had a webcam. Either our webcam projections are wrong or we overindex and the people reading our inserts have kept up with technology and have the latest gear and know how to use it.

Spencer Knisely
Spencer Knisely
Ad Age: How clear was it [in the circular] that you need a webcam to do this?

Mr. Knisely: There was a footnote at bottom of the page, and buried in with all the other footnotes -- the legal disclaimers and such -- there was a note that said you have to have a webcam. Whether that's prominent is really debatable, but we did technically tell folks they needed one.

Ad Age: Was Toshiba involved?

Mr. Knisely: We discovered the technology by just investigating what kind of cool things we can do out there, and we contacted our partner here in town, Modern Climate, which built the experience for us. We said, "Hey, we heard you'd done one of these in the past. How hard would it be for you to do one for us for the insert in six weeks or so?"

At the time, we weren't thinking about engaging our vendor partners or as a cooperative investment opportunity but as a new thing to do with our insert that would be kind of fun. We have the opportunity now, having proven that it did work, to go to our manufacturer partners and asking if they have an interest in expanding the kind of messaging you can deliver. Ultimately the front cover is a fixed amount of real estate; you can only say so many things. But if you get yourself to the cover, this can be a portal to lots of other messaging, should you choose to do that.

Ad Age: Can you tell what the real business result -- or conversion -- of this was?

Mr. Knisely: We don't know that yet. We saw comparatively high click-through -- 12% -- to other pages: the Twelpforce page, the Next Class computing page or to the dot-com site for the Toshiba computer itself. But aggregated, a 12% click-through on an experience like that is fairly decent.

I believe we'll be able to see who actually made a purchase ... through cookies placed on the machine. They'll tell us where you came from, and those are the kinds of things we're watching now too.

We're also watching now for the secondary bounce we're getting. Lots of folks saw it in the insert, typed it into their browser directly, and that was the Sunday experience. But there was also the opportunity to share this through social-media sites, and we're seeing our second and third bounces as people are referring it to their friends and family. How many echoes do we get -- and how long do they last -- from one placement in the circular?

Ad Age: Would you do this again?

Mr. Knisely: We have plans to do more AR in the future, active projects on the books. Our point of view is you have to offer a range of ways for the consumer to interact. It's too early to tell whether any of these things is a replacement of -- but they're certainly an enhancement to -- a traditional insert.

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