Ways to Innovate: Image Scanning and Visual Recognition

In the column, “Business Slow? Time to Innovate and Test,” I examined the need for innovation in this economy. If you’re worried about keeping existing customers — and getting new ones — you must innovate and provide users with experiences they can’t get from their competitors. A reader asked me to provide concrete examples of how companies are innovating. So, today we’ll talk about image scanning and visual recognition and how some companies are using it to lower their own costs while providing new user experiences.

Banks Are Innovating; Are You?

Of all industries, the banking industry is innovating by rolling out new ATMs. At the beginning of year, Chase began converting all its ATMs to newer no-envelope machines. Other banks, like Wells Fargo and Bank of America, have a head start, as they have been integrating these machines for a while now.

The premise is simple: you no longer need envelopes when making deposits. I had heard of these ATMs, but my local Chase branch just got these machines installed last weekend and yesterday was the first time I used it.

While I understood the no-envelope idea, what I didn’t know was these new machines’ other features. Basically, you place a stack of checks in the machine, and it uses OCR to read each one and discover the amount of the check. If it can’t figure it out, it asks you for the amount. It then tallies the results and immediately processes the checks.

The coolest feature is that you can opt to have the images of the checks printed on your receipt.

This innovation is for both consumers and businesses. For consumers, the convenience should be fairly obvious. According to MyBankTracker, the transaction cost has gone from $1.70 to only $0.40. Plus less paper is used, helping the environment.

Of particular interest to us is the multichannel marketing aspect of these ATMs. For starters, images of the deposited checks are available online within 48 hours of the deposit. (Of course, instant access would be better.)

Retail and Other Industries

If you had OCR and scanning abilities, what would you use them for in your industry?

Currently, many consumers print out shopping carts or wish lists created online and bring them into your store. What benefits could you provide them by being able to scan their wish list? Perhaps you could tell them if the items are in stock, start placing an order, or provide alternative products that you have in stock if you don’t have what’s on the list.

Many brick-and-mortar stores already allow consumers to scan their products’ barcodes to get a price check. They could expand this functionality to allow printouts of product names to generate an inventory lookup and price check.

Amazon is already doing something similar via its iPhone application. The app allows users to take a photograph of a product and automatically see product information via Amazon.com.

If you’re in the travel industry, you could create an iPhone app that lets me take a photo of a sign or something else written in a foreign language and translate it into my native language for me.

If you’re a health insurance company, what documentation could I scan in and upload to my account on your site that would make the reimbursement process go quicker?

Lead or Get Out of the Way

In every industry there is some interesting application for visual recognition. Plus, the basic idea can take on any form. It could be a kiosk/ATM, a scanner in a store, a photograph from your phone, or simply the ability to recognize uploaded documents via the Web. Sit and brainstorm for a few minutes on how your customers could benefit from this technology.

Visual recognition is only an example of how companies are innovating using a certain idea and technology. You could pick a different technology that isn’t being used in your industry and figure out how to apply it to your business. If done correctly, it could increase customer satisfaction, provide a competitive advantage, and lower your ongoing costs.

Until next time…


Join us for a one-day Online Marketing Summit in a city near you from May 5, 2009, to July 1, 2009. Choose from one of 16 events designed to help interactive marketers do their jobs more effectively. All sessions are new this year and cover such topics as social media, e-mail marketing, search, and integrated marketing. Register 30 days in advance and get a $40 discount!

Related reading