One year later: How Pokémon Go leveled up AR for marketing

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The Pikachu-catching phenomenon popularized AR and made the technology much more accessible.

The stage had been set for AR’s popularization for years, but it was finally Pokémon Go that brought a mainstream audience to the technology last summer.

The game’s debut in the summer of 2016 established AR as a formidable tool in the marketer’s playbook and accelerated the rate at which the digital and real worlds merged, experts say, looking back on the craze.

James Holland, creative technology lead at Text100, says the mobile-enabled game pried open the "Pandora’s Box" of AR.

"[Last year] I said, ‘We’re at the top of the VR roller coaster; the hype is reaching crescendo, but we’re not going to enjoy the ride just yet, because it’s not a mainstream consumer thing," he explains. "The same was true of AR – until this year."

One sign the technology is reaching critical mass is that Apple unveiled an AR developer platform for iOS 11 last month. The "ARkit" represents a dramatic democratization of the technology, says Holland. Only 12 months ago, he adds, developing something like Pokémon Go would’ve been costly and time-consuming, and improbable without the technology and experience of Niantic’s team, which includes Google Earth and Google Maps alumni. Pokémon Go also increased awareness about geo-targeting and geo-fencing and made them more accessible.

"You’re going to be able to make a Pokémon Go in a weekend in your bedroom, which is mind-blowing," he says.

Last July, Pokémon Go burst into the cultural consciousness, sending users into public places to search for the game’s characters. At the time, it was the most profitable game in both the Google and Apple app stores, according to The Washington Post, and sent Nintendo’s share price soaring. At its peak, the game had nearly 29 million daily active users, according to Recode.

When Pokémon Go launched, experts were awed by the technical wizardry that transformed public landmarks, restaurants, stores, and gyms into PokéStops. The fact that the localized experience was replicated in thousands of cities spoke to game’s deep use of data, says Ben Foster, SVP of global strategy and innovation at Ketchum Digital.

"Six months ago, if we were asked to build a similar thing, we would’ve quoted a huge price," Holland says. "Now if they asked, we could turn it around in a few weeks. Anyone can hop on the AR bandwagon and many will – probably badly, to begin with. But you’re also going to see some really cool things that will make you question how you lived without AR."

However, Pokémon Go’s ubiquity also skewed client perceptions of AR. Foster says he had to help clients understand the technology’s broader implications beyond its "gamification."

A few months after the launch of Pokémon Go, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg revealed a platform allowing users to build AR apps on top of the social network’s core service. After that, Foster says he noticed an uptick in clients asking for AR-related ideas.

"You can explain it all day long, but until they have it in their hands, they don’t have the context to understand what it means," Foster says. "This is about putting a phone in front of people and [showing] how a product or brand fits into their personal world."

For marketers already bracing for Gen Z, Pokémon Go demonstrates the need to reach this digital-native generation in different ways than members of Generation X and millennials, says Alex McPherson, director of insights and analytics at FleishmanHillard. He explains that members of Generation Z aren’t avoiding physical spaces--in fact, McPherson says the vast majority shop in brick-and-mortar stores--but that’s not the first place they look.

"AR is part of a wave of new dynamic customer experiences," he explains. "All customer experiences nowadays are really multichannel, but brand strategies are going to have to change to keep up with the ways and places customers are engaging and expect to be engaged."

Although Pokemon Go has mostly dropped out of the cultural zeitgeist, the Niantic-developed mobile game is still played by 65 million people each month. It also generated more than $1 billion in revenue, driven by in-app purchases, a cost-per-visit model that relies on sponsored locations, and an ocean of geo-location data for marketers and advertisers. However, its user numbers are down dramatically from the sensational figures it racked up in the weeks after its launch.

Niantic didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Pokémon Go’s wild success was as much a result of its technology as its incredible IP and nostalgic appeal, Holland says. However, its drop-off reflects its inability to tap into what McPherson calls the "network effect."

The lack of a player-versus-player or Pokémon-trading system at launch created a community of people that "played beside each other, not with each other," leading to fan base erosion, says McPherson.

"Customer support and service is always going to be the backbone of brand affinity, but it’s also a primary aspect of keeping them," he adds.

Despite the drop-off, the game’s legacy as a cultural craze, as well as a touchpoint for marketers pondering the potential of AR, is secure.

"[Pokémon Go] gave proof that AR is a lot more the next big thing than anything else I’ve been told," Foster says.

Asked if it’s a reference point for client conversations about AR, Foster pauses for a moment, then says, "There is no other reference point."