First there was social media, then QR codes, and now the latest technology being embraced by PR agencies is the kind of app that allows you to carry One Direction in your hands or guide you past London's best architecture.
Once the exclusive domain of app developers, PR professionals have increasingly been using augmented reality (AR) apps as part of their campaigns.
In the past four months, the Rolling Stones have had gorillas hanging out in world landmarks in the run-up to their new album launch, Barack Obama's team used an app that allowed supporters to 'scan' a $5 note to gain exclusive content during the presidential campaign, while Children in Need released an app that allowed people to have their picture taken with celebrities in the palm of their hands.
Media organisations have also embraced the technology to make print products more interactive and provide advertisers with additional digital options.
AR ads have run in The Times and the FT. And last September, phone firm Telefonica and HP-owned AR provider Aurasma struck a major partnership deal that aims to integrate the technology into O2 phones.
'AR has promised to be the next big thing since 2007, but it is only recently that the technology has matured to the point of being useful to everyday PR,' says Hotwire's director Matt Cross. 'Whether as part of an immersive media mailer, really bringing a story to life, or a new channel to influence consumers, AR could prove a hit.'
In its simplest terms, augmented reality apps work by holding a smartphone or tablet over an image to receive more content, or, as Google succinctly puts it, using pictures rather than words to search the web.
So an album cover may turn into a realistic 3D band playing in your living room, or a concert poster may allow you to buy tickets, search directions to the gig and add a reminder to your phone.
As John Hanke, head of Google Maps, told Dezeen magazine in December, with augmented reality 'the phone as an object kind of disappears'.
For PR agencies, the technology is a tool for engaging users with a brand and adding value to a product in an efficient way.
'It's a Pandora's box for PR people; you can produce such creative content,' says Alex Myers, managing director at comms agency Manifest London.
In December, Manifest announced its new partnership with Blippar, an augmented reality provider.
After beginning to promote the technology, the agency realised it could start using it too.
While some providers sell PR professionals the technology, Blippar allows them to promote their app through their existing platform. Working with Blippar means Manifest London is able to target a market that already exists rather than creating one from scratch.
'Usually, the difficulty is to build momentum,' says Myers. 'But the app already has 1.5 million downloads, so we can automatically go to 1.5 million active users to drive campaign success from day one.'
It also helps eliminate the expensive costs and time it takes to produce the app. 'For PR, it becomes much more of an accessible idea and an accessible tactic,' says Myers. 'It allows nimble agencies to have great, quick ideas that maybe just jump on the back of the news agenda. Anything that you can respond to really quickly and deliver very cheaply is always going to be attractive to PR agencies.'
QR codes - barcodes that users can scan with their smartphone to open up a website - have become a phenomenon in the past few years and increasingly popular for PR campaigns, but Myers believes AR has even more potential.
'QR codes have very low levels of interaction and very low levels of creative potential,' he says. 'More and more, augmented reality will become a portal for content. If you want to add some extra content or a creative kick, then augmented reality apps are a quick and easy way to do it.'
Dean Russell, European social media director at Lewis PR, has used AR apps in the past and is looking to integrate one in a project later this year. For him, the technology is a great way of contributing to the 'brand experience'.
Many of the current AR apps are fun, such as the Rolling Stones' app that adds 3D gorillas when you hold your phone in front of world landmarks. But Russell argues that the long-term value of these apps is to deepen consumer engagement with a brand by using an app that 'adds value' to a consumer's life. For example, the app might allow consumers to access a new piece of content or information that makes their lives easier.
'AR apps are a way for a consumer to get to grips with how a brand works and to engage with that brand,' says Russell. 'There will still be funny stuff, but increasingly firms will use it to enable people to have a depth of experience with their brand. It becomes powerful when you are using it to dig a level deeper than you could before.'
Punch Communications co-founder Pete Goold says creating this kind of engagement depends on how 'social' the apps are: 'It's about striking the right balance between simple to use and simple to execute, and then raising a smile or making someone think "yes, I'd like to do that".'
Creating the right content is an important aspect of AR technology, but Goold believes promoting it effectively is crucial. 'The most important thing is how the app is populated. You can build the coolest thing in the world, but if you don't promote it, nobody will use it,' he adds.
One of the main challenges with AR is communicating it simply. Part of the problem, perhaps, is the name of the concept itself. Blippar has already employed the term 'visual discovery' instead, which it hopes will make AR sound more engaging.
'The term "augmented reality" is somewhat self-defeating because it sounds so overly complex,' says Punch's Goold. 'It's a classic comms issue about having a word that terrifies people.'
As well as being communicated simply, it also needs to be simple to use.
'User experience is paramount,' says Lewis PR's Russell. 'Augmented reality apps are complex, so it needs to just work and be very simple. That shows you are a brand that is easy to understand too.'
Yet, while augmented reality has a clear role in brand promotion, there is yet to be clear evidence of direct sales impact.
'In the campaigns we've run, they've not been very sales based,' admits Manifest's Myers. 'But in terms of advocacy and community, we've seen a dramatic increase in volume of conversations online.'
Manifest's augmented reality cover and pages for ShortList magazine, which was enabled through Blippar, was the magazine's most successful cover, receiving the most positive posts on Twitter and Facebook. Yet, for ShortList, a free magazine distributed at Tube stations, customer sales is not so relevant.
'For ShortList, it's all about being front-of-mind within a noisy marketplace and to prove to its own advertisers that many people are talking about it,' adds Myers. 'Augmented reality is a big opportunity for PR to prove that content and community can drive sales more than just straight-forward advertising.'
So, what is the future for augmented reality in PR campaigns?
Goold believes it lies in business audiences and creating something of real value. 'In 2014, I would expect to see an increasing number of apps delivered for b2b audiences or building b2b awareness and clients,' he says. 'Apps that are just a bit of fun are fine, but the future is about making them add value, where the app is not just trying to promote something else, but is itself a product or service.'
Augmented reality apps have great potential to be used in PR campaigns, engaging consumers with a brand in an effective and increasingly accessible way. If they are well thought-out and used simply, then we may be seeing far more of them in PR campaigns in the future. Yet, like any PR strategy, AR should not be used just because it is available.
'You've got to make sure the tactic is built around the idea and not the other way around,' says Myers. 'Just because it's bright new and shiny, it doesn't mean it's right for every campaign. Brands look at the commercial objectives of their campaign, but if the audience and the big idea works through augmented reality, then go for it.'
AUGMENTED REALITY: FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
What is AR?
Augmented reality is the use of computer-generated images or data to modify the real world. Augmented reality apps allow a user to hold a smartphone or tablet over one of these images to receive more information. Blippar, Zappar and Aurasma are the main augmented reality developers.
What can you use it for?
It has mainly been used to produce apps, which offer new information or content for users. For example, a gig poster might allow you to buy tickets, search directions to the gig and add a reminder to your phone. But AR is also being used for hardware, for example Google's proposed Project Glass, where the user would receive information through what looks like a normal pair of glasses via voice commands.
What is the process?
AR providers typically develop the apps for PR campaigns, either selling the technology to the agency or providing a platform and ready-made users to promote the app. For most, an AR app's creation is a collaboration between the agency's production team, which comes up with the concept, design and basic development, and third-party resources that have the specialist skills to embed and produce this content.