The Internet might be where most car buyers do their shopping, but Andy Lapin believes recent advances in mobile technology will push the car-buying process back onto dealership lots. That’s why the chief architect behind Kelly Blue Book’s vehicle information site is keeping a close eye on the development of mobile augmented reality (MAR).
Once referred to as the holy grail for marketers, video game developers and cell phone makers, augmented reality is the overlay of virtual elements on a real-world image. An example would be the yellow first down line on football broadcasts. MAR takes this a step further by displaying those virtual overlays onto a mobile device. In dealership terms, that means car buyers will be able to kick the tires while being able to access anything from incentives to customer reviews.
“I’ll be able to point my phone at a car and it will recognize what that car is and be able to present information based on where I’m physically standing,” he says. “It’ll be kind of like a virtual tour guide.”
But even Lapin admits that MAR is at least five years away. There are only a handful of mobile phones on the market that are capable of delivering any form of MAR and only a slightly bigger handful of consumers who own them. But there are other technologies laying the groundwork for this reality. The most recognizable among them is the now-ubiquitous QR code.
Blazing the Trail
Fourteen million Americans scanned a QR code on their mobile device this past June, according to Internet marketing research company comScore. Marketers place the 2-D barcodes on advertisements and billboards in hopes that consumers will photograph them with their mobile device. And when they do, the barcode acts as a window to additional information about the brand.
Ben Lemieux, a telecoms analyst for Visiongain, a market research firm based in the United Kingdom, says QR codes are paving the way to MAR, which he says won’t make major gains until mid- to late 2013.
“[QR codes] are a precursor to MAR in that they will prepare consumers for the technology’s arrival,” he says, noting that MAR apps will immediately recognize what the user is looking at rather than waiting for a barcode to be scanned. “Although QR codes and the object recognition [technology] required for MAR apps are vastly different from a programming standpoint, the act of pointing a mobile device camera at an object to reveal onscreen information about it will be familiar from an end-user standpoint.”
Toyota was one of the first carmakers to test out QR codes, doing so during the New York Giants’ 2009 home opener as part of its “It’s a Good Time to Sign” campaign. Attendees of the game were given handouts outfitted with the 2-D barcodes, which they could then photograph to access the mobile site Toyota created for the campaign. The marketing strategy resulted in 9.2 percent fan engagement, which marketers proclaimed a huge success.
Toyota Financial Services also is giving QR codes a try, announcing last month that it is now placing the barcodes on billing statements to allow its customers to access their accounts. Dealerships are embracing the technology as well. The most recent example was Ohio’s Saab of North Olmsted, which launched a month-long contest that turned 400 residents and 100 of the dealership’s vehicles into rolling billboards.
“We’ve put [QR codes] in some print ads prior to the promotion, but this campaign was really the first big use of them,” says Jim Levine, the dealership’s general manager. “It was a big undertaking, though. I now have a third full-time job.”[PAGEBREAK]
Snap Up a Saab
The multifaceted “Snap Up a Saab” contest was used to promote Saab’s new 2012 lineup, but it also served to reacquaint the community with the dealership’s new facility, which was completed this past March. Levine actually owned the dealership until May 2008. That’s when he sold it to Collection Auto Group, a 14-store group founded by Bernie Moreno in 2005.
It was Moreno who came up with the idea for the contest. “He’s a pretty creative guy,” Levine says of his boss, a 2012 TIME Dealer of the Year nominee.
Launched on Oct. 30, the contest put 100 potential customers each week behind a new Saab. Their mission was to collect as many points as possible for a chance to win a Saab of their choice. The simplest way for contestants to accrue points was to drive to a supermarket or mall and ask patrons to check out the car and scan one of two 2-D barcodes placed on the inside and outside of the vehicle.
The dealership also hired Whisteo, a local Web design company, to create the contest’s site, contest.saabohio.com, as well as the individual contestant fan pages. Participants were allowed to dress up their pages with videos and messaging to attract fans to accrue additional points.
The contest also attracted 62 sponsors, which provided discounts and other incentives to individuals who scanned one of the QR codes. Contestants earned additional points each time a discount or other special offer was redeemed.
“We had some contestants accumulate close to 4,000 points during the first week,” Levine says. “Some people are showing the car on YouTube and then pushing it out to all of their friends; others are using Facebook. Some even invited their friends over to their house [to view the car].”
The 24 contestants with the most points moved onto the semifinals, where they were asked to post a video to their site that explained why they should win. The five participants with the most votes were then asked to be at the dealership on Dec. 1 for the final round, the results of which didn’t make the magazine’s editorial deadline. “They’ll each get a box with a key in it and one of them will unlock a car in the showroom and be able to drive home in a Saab of their choice,” Levine explains.
From conception to reality, “Snap Up a Saab” was created in just two months, with the dealership getting social media and strategy support from Saab North America. The dealership also collaborated with an outside advertising agency. The dealer group also put its resources behind the contest.
Out of the gate, the contest site received approximately 120,000 hits after Levine issued a press release announcing the contest on Oct. 17. The store also started taking vehicle orders after the first week of the contest.
Given that his store is located in the largest Saab market in the country, Levine knew his competition had a captive audience. And even if his 30-vehicle-a-month dealership doesn’t sell 100 cars in four weeks as originally planned, he says the attention his store received locally and even nationally has already made the contest a huge success.
Levine admits, however, that a contest like Snap up a Saab might be a tall order for a single-point dealer. “It’s possible for a single-point dealer to do it,” he says. “Although I think it would work better if a group of dealers got together and did it in a particular region.”
The Next Step
One of the issues Levine faced early on was locating a firm that could provide the QR code technology. The Web developer Saab had recommended only specialized in national campaigns and not ones as localized as Levine’s. Fortunately, the company who designed the contest’s site, Whisteo, was able to help, but the situation does speak to the lack of firms able to help dealers step into this new era of marketing.
That will soon change, says James Galindo, co-founder of QAR Codes (pronounced “car” codes), a Fort Worth, Texas-based firm that launched in late October. Galindo says that although QR Codes are now commonplace in Europe and Asia, adoption in the United States is rising.
The reason, he adds, is QR codes allow dealerships to keep tabs on lot customers, even if their salespeople never had the chance to engage them.
“Dealers have a lot of shoppers that just look at the cars without talking to a salesperson,” Galindo says. “Our application will capture those leads electronically so they can see who is looking at their cars. I don’t think dealers like that idea, but you do have a younger generation that just wants to go out and shop on their own without being hassled.”
Kelly Blue Book’s Lapin agrees that it takes a certain type of customer to scan a QR code, noting that likely participants tend to interact with a lot of content. He believes QR codes will continue to gain traction with consumers and dealers, but says that will end when true MAR technology arrives.
“QR codes will have their little moment of fame until technology catches up to what people really want, because I don’t think the action of scanning a code ranks very high,” says Lapin.
Visiongain’s Lemieux says MAR won’t take off until major players like Google and Apple enter the market. And that won’t happen until several major MAR apps are released, which he doesn’t believe will happen until late 2013. But by 2016, he adds, one in every four downloads will be a MAR application.
Until then, mobile devices will need to make room for location-based hardware such as near field communication and radio frequency identification chips. Lemieux, however, believes the eventual driver of MAR will be software.
“QR codes will still be used by consumers who do not have MAR-capable phones, but will be gradually rendered obsolete by the prevalence of MAR browsers and the development of better object recognition software,” he says.
“Basic MAR would involve the app recognizing the company logo or identifying the store through GPS technology and overlaying popups about ongoing promotions,” Lemieux adds. “Purists would be more likely to qualify it as a true MAR experience if a virtual company mascot emerged from the shop doors and interacted with the end-user about these promotions.”