In this post Caspar looks both back and forward to share what we’ve learnt so far from the Pokémon GO phenomenon.

Caspar Thykier, Co-founder & CEO, Zappar

There are rare moments in time where technology punches through into mainstream culture and consumer consciousness truly achieving that most unsettling of expressions of ‘going viral’ – the aspiration of every marketer, brand and business. It was true of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Spotify, Snapchat, Amazon, eBay, Uber, Airbnb, Netflix and a pantheon of disruptive products and software solutions that have reframed how we communicate, socialise, shop, tune in and travel.

Well as of two weeks ago we now have a new game-changer (excuse the pun) in Pokémon GO. Or what the Financial Times recently reported as Pokémonomics!

The interesting thing about all these disruptive technologies is that they’ve taken their engineering smarts and translated their algorithms, computer science wizardry and sophisticated backend solutions into compelling consumer propositions that well, just work. As Steve Jobs observed, they start with the consumer use case and worked back to the technology.

We’re now all familiar with the fact that despite Pokémon GO’s meteoric rise it’s no overnight sensation having been decades in the making and can be tracked back to John Hanke’s launch of Key Hole in 2000; his 2004-2010 stint as the architect of Google Maps and Google Street View; launch of Ingress in 2012, through his company Niantic, being the precursor to Pokémon GO and the underlying platform on which it rests.

For all of us in the AR industry it’s triggered a rush of blood to the head for many in the potential of one aspect of the technology that drives Pokémon’s appeal: bringing creatures to life in the camera view melding the physical and digital worlds. The decades of work in augmented reality has in some way been legitimised to business owners, analysts and journalists overnight who finally see a large scale compelling use case and ‘killer app’ to lift AR from the ‘trough of disillusionment’ on the standard hype curves. Frankly, if that is what it takes then I say ‘Amen’ to that!

What’s fascinating is that in terms of what AR is capable of in general as an enabling technology its application in Pokémon GO only scratches the surface. But that’s the beauty of this execution: it focuses on how AR can work as part of a broader platform solution and ecosystem to surprise and delight people. It understands that AR is not the end goal, it's a means to an end and just one part of a bigger narrative.

In my mind the team at Niantic should be applauded for their tenacity for sticking to their vision of combining maps with geo-based MMO’s over so many years; of continuing to learn and refine the technology and proposition; and then jumping on what I’m sure will be seen as one the greatest MVP’s of all time in Googles’ 2014 April Fools’ Day with Pokémon’s appearing in Google Maps adding an AR-lite twist.

Much has been written about the perfect storm of Niantic’s tried-and-test technology solution through the perfect brand prism of Pokémon which has heralded such meteoric success and captured the world’s imagination. My last blog on the subject touched on what that could mean for other brands and businesses. Sure enough over the last fortnight we’ve been inundated at Zappar with requests from our existing partners, new clients, media and analysts keen to get a perspective on what this all means given our experience in the field.

Much of the questioning has been around whether GPS-based AR is the ‘new’ way forward versus tracked or triggered experiences from the physical world. It reminds me of the eternal debate of AR vs VR in that it’s asking the wrong question. Ultimately AR is a facilitating technology. It makes your smartphone unlock content in the real world through an app. Whether that is location based or launched from scanning a product, packaging, piece of POS, print, promotion or even your own face (!), it allows a brand or business to connect all aspects of their customers’ journey to compelling content. AR makes the world a media channel any business can uniquely control for the benefit of their consumers through an app offering rewards, coupons, discounts or fun bite-sized entertainment. And it allows those experiences to be shared treating the canvas of your mobile phone as an immersive, interactive screen. There are times when geo-location offers the right solution and others when you want to direct people to a physical product or specific purchase as the platform for the AR experience. As always, it’s never as binary as an ‘either or’ decision.

What we’d encourage for businesses who have now woken up to the potential for AR on account of Pokémon GO is to take a step back and think about how the use of augmented reality can help their customers and create value for them and their business for the long term. Think about the Where, When and Why the use of AR can benefit your users and how it fits into your broader digital strategy. Consider the 3 C’s for success of Context, Call to Action and Content that will be necessary to educate your audience, illicit the right behaviours and deliver the right level of surprise and delight or ongoing utility as a habitual action to drive sales.

Finally, to everyone asking whether they can (or should) create their own branded version of Pokémon GO I’d personally counsel caution. Niantic’s solution relies on marshalling a complex back-end system that requires large ongoing maintenance, subtle game balancing and constant management of new content and features to their large community like any media channel. Pokémon GO is its own virtual word and ecosystem with its own currency (both social and monetary). The next phase is its role as a media channel offering sponsorship opportunities for brands and businesses. The allure for brands is to access the 20+ million (and fast growing) audience to help drive footfall to their physical locations to increase dwell time in-store for example and hopefully drive purchase intent. Success cases of thought-leading brands and entrepreneurial sole traders taking advantage of ‘lures’ in this way are already abound with more big brand partnership announcements to follow I’d hazard a guess. So if Pokémon GO has peaked your interest as a brand I’d say speak to them and work with Niantic within their existing platform. Unless you’ve got your own audience of 10s of millions of users and can see a genuine application for linking geo-course data and location specific content to your audience on an ongoing basis and are prepared to commit to a large and ongoing level of investment as a core part of your digital strategy. It’s a big call.

The other big question will be how long the interest is sustainable with Pokémon GO and to what core audience. Building a new model for what is ostensibly a gaming franchise mixed with a new breed of media channel is new territory for sure. But one thing we know is that keeping interest in the fiercely fought gaming-led app economy is challenging and requires sustained large-scale marketing investment. I really hope Niantic pull it off as such a long-held vision deserves the rewards of their sheer commitment and hard work. It’s a lesson to us all that there are no easy wins but if you believe in your vision, learn from your users and get a little bit of luck amazing things can happen. That seems like a positive message for all us at the forefront of the next wave of digital.