From QR to AR part 1: the Rise of Interactive Print

May 21, 2018

It’s been well over a decade since designers of magazines and catalogs, packaging and retail displays have introduced the ability to access online material from print using mobile devices. In the industry, we’ve referred to this evolution with a variety of interchangeable terms: interactive print, print-to-digital, mobile activated print, connected print, etc.

Several technologies stand out as critical tactics in multichannel marketing programs, others have disappeared due to market dynamics and the remainder are tech still looking for an application. In the following, I’ll quickly recap the current dynamics around interactive print, the change in the market and where I believe things are going. In a future piece, I’ll conclude this reference guide with the three primary applications that stand out as good use cases for interactive print.

A resurgence in interest around interactive print

Two primary factors stand out in driving demand for interactive print.

You’re likely familiar with the first, a resurgence of interest in mixed media (e.g., augmented reality, virtual reality and other immersive video) driven by rapid consumer adoption that started gaining momentum in early 2016. This began with Snapchat lenses / filters (Sept. 2015) along with Pokémon Go (launched in July 2016). Since then, Google, Apple, Facebook, Snapchat and others have catalyzed the momentum with investments and tech.

Following this factor, we’re now seeing developers building more of the tech required for interactive print into operating systems, platforms and apps. On iPhones, users can now scan quick response (QR) codes with their camera. Major social platforms are now pushing QR, re-establishing relevance (more on that in the next post). Snapchat has built in support for QR codes, Facebook is using them for gifting and adding friends, and both Spotify and Twitter support them. Snapchat also supports the ability to create custom augmented reality (AR) stickers. Google, Apple and soon Facebook all are providing Software Development Kits (SDKs) related to augmented reality and immersive media.

At this point it’s worth noting the US Post Office’s role in fostering adoption of interactive print in direct mail. In 2016 and 2017, the USPS generated demand for interactive print, offering an incentive program for those leveraging new tech such as augmented reality, optimized shopping experiences, QR codes, etc. They offered a 2% discount on postage, which for some brands and retailers could amount to upwards of $750K in savings in a given year.

A brief history of interactive print

Interest in interactive print, specifically mobile-based interaction with print, has seen three waves of activity.

  • 2005-2007: Action Code Experimentation
  • 2010-2013: From Codes to IR
  • 2016-2018: AR Goes Mass Market

2005-2007: Action Code Experimentation

The first wave was experimental with a variety of proprietary action codes (e.g., JagTag, Spyderlynk) that Wired, Rolling Stone and Sports Illustrated incorporated into their print issues. Early adopters and innovators such NeoMedia, Scanbuy / Scanlife and Nextcode heavily evangelized the 2D barcode space in those days. There were also early “snap and send” providers such as Mobot and SnapTell. And Microsoft’s High Capacity Color Barcode (referred to as Microsoft Tag) has its origins in 2006.

This period represented exciting possibilities that came along with the variety of new technologies. However most consumers were just starting to understand mobile phones, apps, etc. The “digital immigrants” (Gen Xer’s, Boomers, etc.) were forced to learn new behaviors so as to interact with print using their mobile phones. Although first-movers in the space received positive press related to innovation, few of these programs drove significant response rates.

2010-2013: From Codes to IR

By the time the second wave hit, more than 80% of magazines boasted some form of interactive print in their pages. Advertisers and publishers shifted during this time from Microsoft Tag (early variant of a QR code) to Imperceptible Watermarks (visible to the smartphone camera but not to the human eye) to Full Page Image Recognition (matching an image to another reference image and then triggering some action). Lucky magazine was an early adopter and had an app that included a “universal” scanner that could read multiple types of response vehicles. Allure introduced them as an easier way to participate in sweepstakes.

Esquire was also very much at the cutting edge as the first to showcase AR, which included an entirely interactive issue (i.e., you could scan any page and be taken to additional mobile optimized content). Esquire and Redbook were some of the first magazines to move entirely to image recognition, by which you could simply hold your phone (using their respective apps) over any page to access content optimized for mobile.

Readers were demonstrably excited, with a number of campaigns at Hearst (e.g., Woman’s Day, Cosmopolitan, Seventeen) garnering extremely high response rates in giving readers a simpler path to doing what they were already doing via other formats (e.g., entering sweepstakes, taking polls, watching videos, etc.). Publishers put available technology to practical use, creating less friction for readers, which raised the levels of success for marketers.

QR codes, a digression

In the early years of interactive print, a program’s success had less to do with specific technologies and more to do with the page layout, copy and the reveal (i.e., the additional content that was presented via the mobile phone). More often than not a marketer would suggest using some mobile response vehicle, such as a QR code. Then designers did their best to bury it on the page (e.g., in the gutter) and there would be no call-to-action or instructions.

For a number of early adopters of QR codes, the technology was essentially written off as ineffective; there was no compelling reason for the consumer to take action—and when they did it was too much work (downloading a QR app, having a camera that could respond fast enough, etc) for an often underwhelming result.

As such, for the past 10 years, we’ve typically seen annual eulogies for the QR code:

Looking ahead, I anticipate publishers will continue to embed QR codes in an increasing number of applications, which will take on the same role in mobile as URLs play for personal computers.

The GS1 URI standard and smart labels will make packaging more informative (self-describing). And replacing the 1D barcode with QR codes will assure they are a key part of marketers’ toolbox in the years ahead. Niall Murphy cited how the BBC named the barcode one of the 50 inventions that shaped the modern economy. He makes the case that the QR code will soon become the world’s largest consumer engagement platform.

Connie Chan provides us with a number of examples for how China is leading the way in the application of QR codes in her piece, “16 Ways QR Codes are Being Used in China”:

  • Paying vendors
  • Connecting to WiFi
  • Getting additional content
  • Checking authenticity of food, drink, etc.
  • Sharing bikes
  • Confirming identity
  • As a call box or info kiosk
  • Identifying pets
  • Donating to charities

2016-2018: AR Goes Mass Market

Snapchat and Pokémon Go taught a wide range of Millennials (along with their parents and children) how to use augmented reality by allowing us to overlay digital content over real-world camera feeds. Today, Net A Porter and Sports Illustrated are examples of magazines still innovating with interactive print. Today, Net A Porter and Sports Illustrated are examples of magazines still innovating with interactive print. SI’s most recent swimsuit issue has both virtual reality experience as well as AR experiences. SI leveraged the Life VR app which Time also used for its magazine’s introduction of AR.

Net A Porter has led the industry in integrating interactive print within their app and magazine, making it easy to shop pages as you read. Likewise, the New York Times and other newspapers have invested in VR as a new form of media for reporting and storytelling.

In the catalog and direct mail space, a number of brands—including Eastbay, Land’s End, Boden and American Girl—have experimented with AR and other activation technologies. American Girl has positioned itself at the forefront by giving readers the ability to access fully connected content via mobile devices, thereby interacting with their products (toys and accessories), catalogs, magazines and books. They’re offering a fully connected storytelling system of play across their touch points using image recognition (IR) and AR.


I’ll return with further thoughts later this week with the landscape of practical applications for present-day interactive print technologies. Along with that, I’ll help you as best I can to anticipate what’s ahead—and where best to invest so as to mitigate the potential risk of putting all your eggs in the wrong basket.