Dancing penguins, flashing holiday lights and a reminder to order shipping boxes and stamps.
Those are the highlights of a new holiday smartphone application that the U.S. Postal Service launched Monday with the goal of attracting more business from direct-mail marketers. The idea: You can do this with your own messages.
USPS customers can use the app to scan the organization’s 156,000 blue collection boxes throughout the country. In turn, they receive a “magical mailbox” message, like the one described above.
As part of this year’s holiday campaign, the agency will show a different animation each week when its blue collection boxes are scanned.
The Postal Service is pitching the idea to marketers as a form of “augmented reality,” a relatively new concept that involves enhancing the real world with digital graphics, sounds, and other forms of feedback.
Among augmented reality’s many potential uses, it can be used to provide information about a user’s surroundings, for instance by flagging sales in a store or explaining the significance of a monument in Washington, D.C.
“Mobile technology is enhancing physical mail in some pretty remarkable ways … changing the way consumers interact with major brands,” USPS Chief Marketing and Sales Officer Nagisa Manabe said in a statement.
The marketing potential with augmented reality is fairly obvious, as it could become a new means for inserting advertisements into people’s daily routines. However, it’s less clear how often USPS customers will download the app and use it when they pass the blue post office boxes that are scattered throughout their towns.
The Postal Service adopted augmented reality in late 2013 and tested it this year through several campaigns, including one that focused on the movie “The Amazing Spiderman 2.” The agency has planned several more campaigns for this year, but it has not released details.
The USPS inspector general’s office released a report on Monday saying that “some exasperated postal customers” who tested the technology “didn’t know what they were supposed to scan or how the app worked.”
But the report said that “a number of reviews have applauded the Postal Service for doing ‘something cool.'” The inspector general’s office recommended that companies be very clear about what users need to scan and what they can expect to happen in return.
The Postal Service began promoting the augmented reality feature this week with mailers to every U.S. household. The app is available at Google Play and through the iTunes App Store, for readers who are interested in giving it a try.
The financially struggling Postal Service has taken other steps to boost its holiday presence this year, most notably by offering deliveries seven days a week from Nov. 17 through Christmas Day. The organization previously did not deliver on Sundays.
The USPS expects its holiday-season package business to grow by 12 percent this year, with the number of packages totaling somewhere between 450 million to 470 million.