Forget QR Codes: Pongr Easily Turns Your Photos Into Brand Rewards

When brands ask consumers to snap a product photo and text or email it in, Pongr recognizes the image and replies. Is that really better than QR codes? We asked its president.

Pongra president Jamie Thompson
taking out his aggression on QR codes. | Photo by Jordan Hollender
Pongr president Jamie Thompson taking out his aggression on QR codes. | Photo by Jordan Hollender

Fast Company: We interacted not long ago.
Jamie Thompson: We did? In real life?

No, on Pongr. I wrote "Dew" on a piece of paper, and texted a photo of it to Pongr this morning. I got an auto-response complimenting the picture, and it was posted on Pongr.com's Mountain Dew page. Then you commented, "cute."
Oh! We're constantly trying to figure out what's working, what's not working. I definitely pay very close attention.

There were like 16,000 photos of Mountain Dew there. You look at all of them?
No, I don't. I look at a lot of them, but I don't look at all of them. I'm pretty sure we've got the world's largest collection of Mountain Dew photos. Certainly, user-generated photos, which makes it quite unique.

The reason I did that is because your company is image-recognition, and I wanted to see what would happen when I submitted an image it couldn't recognize. But as a user of Mountain Dew, what did I get out of that experience?
When you say "a user," you didn't have any real Dew in the picture.

No, but that was the point: Even if I did, the same thing would have happened, right?
No, not at all. We originally were doing this horizontal form of photo capture, whereby all the photos would go into one place, and if we recognized it, we could respond affirmatively, to say, "Hey, great Mountain Dew pic," or Nike pic, or whatever. But if we didn't recognize it, we would say, "We're sorry, no match found." That was a very clinical and early way to work on the core science behind it. But it became clear immediately that, if a brand is paying money for a campaign, "We're sorry, no match found" isn't good enough.

In this case, you got the new "no-match" response. If you'd taken a photo of a certain Mountain Dew bottle with our Call of Duty promotion, you'd have earned yourself some Double XP points. We want to create a good experience, but the other side of the coin is, brands don't want to pay for someone who's gaming the system. We're in business to make money, so we have to do everything we can to verify purchase, encourage real purchase, as opposed to responding to everyone with total freebies.

In some ways I feel like brands today are like 11-year-old boys: A girl will come up and talk to them, but they don't really know what to say back.
That's an interesting way of putting it. Which is why another reason why there's no substitute for authentic, generated user content. Some brands are stuck in the mindset of this old-fashioned data-sampling model, where they think their customer might be the guy on the panel, because some data company has painstakingly and very expensively created a panel for them. Yet the reality is, there's 100 million other people out there that they don't know, that they're not looking at, and they're not slicing into that correctly.

So get the user to share real information with you, so that you know who they are. And sometimes you do it in a way that is designed to get them to want to send you photos, and sometimes you do it in a way that you just want to see what the baseline is. Then you can encourage them to post those photos on Facebook.

So why not just cut you out, and brands can ask fans to post photos on Facebook?
First of all, with image recognition, you can vary the response depending on what's sent in. It gives the brand a level of intelligence that they otherwise wouldn't get. There's also a huge data motivation here. We're entering this wave of so much user-generated content out there, yet so little is actually known about who the customers are. We do all kinds of computer-related intelligence, both on photos coming into Pongr and across the web. There is a huge data motivation for brands--pockets of data coming in by region. They can ask, How is our product actually doing in the store? How is our product doing in people's homes? What are people taking photos of, and is it good stuff, or bad stuff? Do we need to adjust our message in real time, our calls to action in real time? It's much more than that direct response into a website.

We both agree that QR codes are really ugly.
Yeah. I hate them.

But the one thing they have accomplished is becoming a symbol of "engage here." If you remove that and replace it with this system, you have to replace it with a step-by-step explanation of what to do, right?
Certainly, brands that use Pongr have to put up a pretty nice call to action. But when it's done right, and when it's done well, the experience can be controlled, the experience can be much better, and the value of the data is so much greater that I think it's worth doing.

What do you think a brand wants more: People taking photos of brands because of promotions, or people doing it organically and posting to Twitter?
Both. They want both. If people are doing it organically, that's great. The next step, though, is to figure out how to make sense of all that data, and how to factor it into everything else you're doing. If you leave it alone and do nothing, you're potentially leaving valuable marketing opportunities on the table.

Follow Jason Feifer @heyfeifer and @fastcompany on Twitter.

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