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Quick Response

Jul 1, 2010 12:00 AM


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Remember the CueCat phenomenon of the late 1990s? The feline-shaped scanner was introduced by Digital Convergence as a means of facilitating website access via printed barcodes. For reasons too numerous to mention, consumers, advertisers and print publishers rejected the tethered device and its slanted, proprietary barcodes. The core idea still survives, however, as mobile scanning devices and various flavors of data barcodes proliferate.

For printers, one particular two-dimensional code — the Quick Response or QR Code format — has gained a lot of attention. What is less clear is the timeline for QR Code usage to reach the tipping point for North American consumers, and what print service providers need to know before embracing this technology. There are plenty of obstacles to consider but, in the long term, QR Codes also provide potential benefits to a print campaign.

The basics

The QR Code is only one of many 2D code formats. Others include Microsoft Tag, EZCode and JagTag, which have not achieved the same popularity as QR Code, according to interlinkONE (www.interlinkone.com) product manager Jason Pinto. Each format requires its own reader application, which means, in all probability, only one format will emerge as the de facto standard. QR Code seems to be the likeliest contender.

Like all data workflows, QR Codes are easy to understand in theory but hard to implement in practice. The code itself was developed by Japanese auto parts manufacturer Denso-Wave, which retains the patent but allows anyone to use the code license-free. It is now a published ISO standard that any company may use to encode text data, including URLs, into a scannable image. Before the advent of smartphones, this usually required a dedicated handheld scanner and single-purpose software. The latest generation of mobile devices has changed all that.

Digital cameras have been standard equipment on most mobile phones for years — as has some form of Internet access. However, as smartphones have become increasingly sophisticated, marketers are considering their value as personal QR Code readers and as sophisticated tools for extending their company's reach.

In Japan, mobile phone scanning of printed QR Codes is much more common than elsewhere, but like many mobile trends it is expected to gain traction worldwide. There are still significant barriers to widespread adoption, such as the lack of auto-focus and other QR Code friendly hardware features on most camera phones. Also, until recently, third-party QR Code reading software had to be downloaded for each handset — illustrating an indifference to the technology by many mobile hardware manufacturers, including Apple. But the latest versions of Google's Android and Nokia's Symbian mobile operating systems now include QR Code reading ability, which might be a sign of things to come.

Early adopters

Some marketing companies and their printing partners are not waiting for the technologies to become fully mature. Goss Intl. subsidiary GossRSVP (www.gossrsvp.com) has recently switched from its proprietary 2D code to the open platform QR Code, as part of its media-to-mobile service for print advertisers. Clients use the hosted GossRSVP platform to create campaigns with SMS or HTTP printable, auto-generated QR Codes; manage their interactive promotions via mobile text messaging, media links and text alert subscription management; and collect response data for each campaign. The company provides guidance on phones, reader software and implementation.

GossRSVP director Roger Belanger described the chicken-and-egg dilemma facing those working with QR Codes. On the hardware side, people can be reluctant to use their phones' limited CCD cameras to scan QR Codes, while phone manufacturers are slow to make their cameras better “light-assisted scanners” because QR Code use is not yet widespread.

The software picture is improving, with a QR Code reader being included in an upcoming iPhone OS release — possibly followed by a similar move by RIM for Blackberry devices. Notwithstanding, Belanger maintains that the core problem is the hardware situation, which might take 3 or 4 years to change. Carriers like AT&T might push the handset manufacturers to do so sooner, especially if some of the increased ad revenue comes their way. (Carriers also should be motivated by QR Code usage's potential to increase the use of monthly data plans.)

Despite these barriers, Belanger believes that printers should be actively pursuing print/mobile integration now, using text messaging and URLs or PURLs to mobile-optimized sites. With such systems in place, printers and their marketing partners will be able to easily transition from text-based codes to 2D barcodes. Even with the technology in the early adopter stage, he maintains that the business opportunity for mobile-enabled print is clear.

Next Page: Pushing the envelope

Pushing the envelope

Developer and art director Philip Warbasse of Warbasse Design (www.warbassedesign.com) and Plush Mobile Servers (www.plushms.mobi) believes the adoption timeline is much shorter. Although it is a novelty now — with significant publicity value — QR Codes in print will be normal within a year's time, he maintains. Printers need to embrace integrated media now — on their own or in tandem with strategic partners — and be capable of incorporating tools like QR Codes as soon as possible.

Warbasse's QR campaigns for print always include a means to download the appropriate reader, as well as an exclusive offer or incentive. Above all, the user experience when scanning the QR Code must be a distinctive and compelling mobile-optimized Web experience, which Warbasse Design develops for its clients. Ordinary websites — especially those with features not supported by mobile browsers — are inappropriate targets for QR Code campaigns, he says.

One barrier to QR Code adoption is the perception that they are ugly and intrusive visual elements — especially when they need to be large enough for today's camera phones. Warbasse has responded with some innovative designs, such as stylized codes for the movie “Iron Man 2” and the HBO series “True Blood.” The company does extensive testing on all such designs — as well as providing much of the mobile-optimized experience for users who scan the codes.

Warbasse is testing its integrated media program for printers now and will make it available to printers across North America in June. The entertainment industry is the most proactive adopter, he says, while typical blue chip brands have shown reluctance to try the new approach. Fashion and clothing manufacturers are starting to show real interest, however, along with TV and network clients and magazine publishers. Printers with existing direct mail systems are actively exploring QR Codes as a differentiator. As public awareness grows, Warbasse maintains, QR Codes will be standard print offerings at places like FedEx Kinko's within two years' time.

QR Code proponent interlinkONE has developed an integrated marketing system, including web-to-print storefronts, multichannel communications, personalized URLs (PURLs) and more. Its customers include printers and other service providers as well as marketing agencies and larger enterprises. The company's “QReate & Track” website (http://qreateandtrack.com) offers several levels of QR Code creation and tracking — including a free trial — as well as useful tutorials on QR Code issues.

Getting the right QR Code reader to the user's phone has been an interesting challenge, according to Pinto. “Seeing the QR Code might cause someone to pause and give it attention,” he says. “But it also might be worth your while to add a couple of lines of text to the printed piece that explain how people can read the code. You might want to direct them to a special landing page where they can download popular QR Code readers for their specific phone. As people become more familiar with QR Codes, those types of instructions might become unnecessary. But right now, they help increase the success of your QR Code campaigns.”

Another barrier to QR Code use is the problem of data density. The more data and error correction used, the larger the resulting QR Code will be. By starting with a simple data set — like a shortened URL or PURL — the resulting code will be smaller, less competitive with the rest of the piece, and more likely to be read correctly.

One interlinkONE customer, A&M Label, has had encouraging initial results with QR Code use on consumer product labels. Technical services specialist David Platz describes one example, a honey product manufacturer with a new and relatively obscure product: agave nectar. Because most shoppers have no idea what that is or how it may be used, A&M Label added a QR Code to the label, with the words “Smartphone users, scan this code to find out more about agave nectar.” Those who did were directed to a custom, mobile optimized URL containing information and recipes. interlinkONE reported over 50 hits on the first day. Platz said the customer was very pleased and plans to expand QR Code usage on its honey labels — including a cross-promotional campaign for an upcoming animated feature film.

A&M Label is no stranger to barcode workflows, having managed UPC codes for in-store scanner use. QR Codes for consumers with smartphones is a very logical step. Platz outlined some of the company's plans, which include wine and beer labels — whose QR Codes will take the user to a unique “story” (video and/or website) about the winery or brewery and its products and recipes. A&M Label uses Microsoft Tag as well as QR Code, and is planning to do print/mobile campaigns for DVD movie labels — allowing shoppers to see movie previews on their phones.

The ideal workflow — when?

All of these pioneering companies have spent time testing the process to find the right combination of data and error correction to produce QR Codes readable by a majority of camera phones — many of which are less than ideal. They also had to be proactive in devising ways to get users to install mobile reader apps.

Part of the solution thus far has been to target younger, more technically savvy mobile users — those willing to experiment with their handsets. However, the rapid rise of smartphone use, and the increasing sophistication of smartphone hardware and software, means that the target market is expanding. Those that believe QR Codes are limited to Japan, or to young hipsters, should remember how odd it first seemed to hear about reading e-mails on cell phones.

Even with limited phones and software, QR Code use can provide measurable results in carefully planned applications. When software downloads are made as simple as possible, and where viewing conditions are suitable, QR Codes provide potential additional value to print campaigns, including increased response rates, additional sales, heightened brand awareness/loyalty and increased engagement by consumers.

As more smartphones include QR Code reader software, and as phone cameras improve in quality and power, the practice of scanning printed materials will only increase. Whether the tipping point is six months from now (as Warbasse and others believe) or as far away as three years, the print/mobile trend is a reality now. Printers and marketing professionals who wait for ideal conditions will miss out.

Next Page: Weighing the benefits

Weighing the benefits

Printers who are not already providing services like online print procurement, variable-data print campaigns and list management/tracking probably will not be ready to add QR Codes to their repertoire.

For those who are thinking beyond print, the time to explore this technology is now. Whether developed in-house or in tandem with media-savvy service companies, QR Codes are yet another enhancement to the medium we love.

John W. Seybold famously said, “Print speaks to us uniquely and patiently.” As we look for ways to enhance the unique nature of print — and prevent it from becoming a mere commodity — QR Codes and mobile web engagement are potentially powerful tools in the print communicator's arsenal.

QR Code rules of thumb

Whether printers use their own integrated media system to generate QR Codes or partner with a service that does so, here are some basic rules of thumb:

  • Always start with the simplest possible original data, including shortened URLs (or PURLs). The more data, the larger the image.
  • Do not make the QR Code image too small. About 3/4 inch is the smallest size most phone cameras can capture today, although future phones will be able to capture data from smaller images.
  • Beware of using QR Codes where you know the print viewing conditions will be problematic. Low light environments, non-perpendicular viewing angles and reflective surfaces (e.g., signs behind glass windows) might require larger QR Codes or might not work at all.
  • Provide a straightforward means, such as short message service (SMS), for users to download the right QR Code reader to their mobile phone. Someday, the majority of phones will come with readers. Until then, always print simple instructions.
  • Always include a compelling, exclusive offer as an incentive to scan the QR Code.
  • Always make the results of a QR Code scan a meaningful mobile experience. Just sending users to a regular Web page is not enough — especially if the page is not optimized for mobile browsers.
  • Be aware that public acceptance of QR Codes — and the state of mobile software and hardware — are moving targets. A print/mobile campaign that is risky today might be essential tomorrow.

John Parsons is an independent consultant and the principal of Byte Media Strategies LLC. Contact him at john@bytemedianews.com. (You may also contact the author by scanning the QR Code on page 14 with your reader software-equipped smartphone.)