For Advertisers, Will QR Codes Blend the Print-Mobile Experience?
Ignoring Harold Ramis’ (playing Dr. Egon Spengler) dire warning: "Don't cross the streams," advertisers are daily crossing the streams of media experience, combining Internet and mobile interaction with more traditional fare―most notably television. Whether our brains can really handle the cascade is an unanswered question, but there is no turning back; consuming one media while interacting with another is “in.” (Text “Amen” to 987654321, if you agree.)
Television is only the first medium to experience this on a large scale. Print advertising, believe it or not, is probably next. The imminent prospect of QR Code (the name is derived from “quick response” 2D bar codes) usage in movie posters, retail store signage and product labels means that print ads in magazines and newspapers will―and, in fact, already are beginning to―follow suit. Once the public acceptance of scanning printed pieces with smartphones reaches a tipping point, QR Codes will likely become as commonplace as UPC codes are today.
QR Codes, in brief, are two-dimensional images containing encoded data. (There are other 2D codes, but QR Code appears to be winning.) The process was developed by a Japanese auto parts manufacturer, but is now an open, ISO-governed spec. The more data and error-correction employed, the larger the code gets. Just about anything can be encoded, but the most common use is for shortened URLs, preferably pointing the user to a mobile-optimized site. Unlike the disastrous CueCat experiment of 1999-2000, QR Codes do not require a proprietary scanner, just a smartphone with reader software.
Barriers to Adoption
There are still significant barriers, but these are falling. Until recently, downloading QR Code reader software was a separate step―and often a barrier to proceeding further. The latest version of Google’s Android and Nokia’s Symbian OS now include pre-installed readers, however, with Apple and even RIM purportedly following suit. Phone CCD camera technology still cannot match a dedicated scanner, but even that gap will close.
Another problem is that QR Codes are decidedly ugly, although firms like Warbasse Design are inventing new ways to include codes in more attractive modes―such as its clever Iron Man 2 campaign. Also, as smartphone cameras improve, the codes will also be printable at smaller sizes than the current 0.75-inch minimum.
Widespread QR Code usage will be common in the entertainment industry first, followed by fashion and clothing manufacturers, the auto industry and―eventually―by other blue chip brands. The reason why entertainment leads the pack is obvious: Movie and TV trailers are easy content to package as a meaningful mobile experience. Other brands will have to work harder, to avoid the pitfall of sending users to a nondescript or non-engaging landing page or―worse still―one that breaks the mobile browser. Above all, QR Codes in print ads need to provide real, exclusive benefits or special offers, such as loyalty program points or e-commerce discounts.
QR Codes may even have benefits on the newsstand. Customers at Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble may not buy all the magazines they browse, but they might scan a code, if suitably motivated. Where that code leads is up to the publisher and its advertisers.
When to Start
Some proponents believe that the QR Code “tipping point” is only six to eight months away, while others believe that camera hardware limitations will hold things up for two to three years. In either case, it needs to be in everyone’s media planning now. With all the attention being focused―justifiably―on interactive digital editions, publishers and advertisers must not ignore the potential of scanable codes in their printed medium, and the engaging mobile sites to which they must lead. They must also resist the temptation to use QR Codes badly, wasting readers’ time on unsatisfying mobile experiences.
The time to prepare is now. Publishers and advertisers who believe QR Codes are limited to Japan, or to young hipsters, should remember how odd it first seemed to hear about reading emails on cell phones.
John Parsons (firstname.lastname@example.org), former Editorial Director of The Seybold Report, is an independent writer, ghostwriter, and editor. He is the co-author of the interactive printed textbook, Introduction to Graphic Communication, on the art, science and business of print, which has been adopted by Ryerson, Arizona State, the University of Houston, and many other schools and vocational training centers. Custom editions of the book are under consideration by major printing companies and franchises for internal training purposes.