We know that consistency among all parts of a marketing campaign provides significantly higher results and increases a company’s overall brand value. We also know that supporting print campaigns with online marketing (and vice versa) provides increased returns. So linking both on- and off-line efforts should result in an even more effective campaign, right? Yes – in theory.
In the mid-2000s, a new technology called QR codes debuted that was supposed to accomplish that goal. A QR, or Quick Response, code is a square barcode that can be placed on any form of print media, and users can scan it with a smartphone to access online content.
While scanning technology had existed for quite some time in other contexts (such as retail and inventory — in fact, QR codes were invented in 1994 in Japan, for automotive part inventory), it was a breakthrough to use this technology for marketing applications. Users could scan a QR code to link to a web address or Google Map, or to initiate an activity, such as placing a telephone call or sending a message via email. To add to the appeal, QR codes can be generated for free, and can even be tracked with Google analytics.
Uses of scanning technology in marketing
The potential benefits of linking off- and online content marketing are obvious – essentially, marketers can direct consumers to access online information when they’re not at a computer. Some uses of scanning technology include:
Direct mail: A historically successful way to increase the conversion rate for direct mail is to couple the mailer with a special landing page on the company’s website that provides special offers and targeted information to the mailer’s audience. Naturally, the challenge is getting the recipient to enter the web address into their browser. Scanning technology makes getting from postcard to landing page simple.
Brochures: A tri-fold brochure or rack card is a convenient and economical means of reaching potential customers, but is severely limited by space constraints. Scanning technology allows marketers to direct customers to much more information about the company’s services or products.
Trade shows: Scanning technology at trade shows can link to a presentation, demonstration or special downloads targeted directly at conference attendees.
Product packaging: Scanning technology on packaging can give customers a simple means to tweet or post Facebook messages related to a product, or access online recipes or other related content.
Signs and banners: Scanning technology can be added to event posters, banners, or permanent and temporary signs, allowing people to access more information or buy tickets to an event.
Other collateral: The possibilities are endless.
Is scanning technology effective?
Marketing experts were understandably enthusiastic about QR codes when the technology was new, and there have been many successful campaigns that used them (a common denominator of successful campaigns — a high value proposition for consumers).
Unfortunately, though, QR codes haven’t lived up to their initial promise. Here are a few reasons why:
No standardization of scanning software: Smartphones don’t come with the scanning software installed – instead, users have to download an app, and to date there isn’t a single go-to app for the purpose. Many of the free scanning apps include distracting digital advertising.
Bad uses by marketers: Too many marketers have jumped on the QR bandwagon without thinking it through – for example, linking a QR code to a website that isn’t optimized for mobile, or that takes way too long to load. Sometimes QR codes link to a website that provides more brand information but not something of value to the consumer.
Bad physical placement of QR codes: Sometimes QR codes wind up in places where Internet access isn’t available (for example, in a subway), which is as absurd as equipping the buttons on a drive-through ATM with Braille letters.We’ve even seen QR codes on websites or Facebook Pages – which makes no sense at all. Sometimes QR codes are too small to work, or located in strange places – like license plates, airport security areas where cell phone use is not permitted, T-shirts, and so on – that just don’t lend themselves to their intended use. In some cases, the results are downright bizarre.
QR code usage seems to have steadily, slowly increased, but some experts question the lack of statistics on repeat usage. Essentially, it seems that consumers who have gone to the trouble of downloading a scanning app to try QR codes have too often been disappointed in the results, making them less likely to try again unless they’re highly motivated to do so.
Alternatives to QR codes
QR codes are still in use, and are undoubtedly the most familiar of the scanning technologies available. However, scanning technology is evolving quickly, and several alternatives to the clunky black-and-white boxes have been developed.
It remains to be seen which, if any, of these will gain traction in the long term, but here are a few alternatives that are currently available:
SnapTags: This circle-shaped code is placed around a company logo, an elegant alternative to the boxy, space-eating QR code. The advantage is that no special app is required, and SnapTags can even be used by “dumb” phones with cameras– you simply take a photo of the code and text or e-mail it. However, an app is available for smartphones. Unlike QR codes, SnapTags aren’t free, but SpyderLink (the company that owns the technology) will keep detailed analytics.
SMS short codes: This is a relatively low-tech solution that’s been in wide use for a long time – the user texts to a five-digit number to donate to a charity, cast a vote (for, say, a contestant on a television talent show), or to receive a web address with more information, to name a few examples. Short codes aren’t as interactive and exciting as the newer technologies, but the advantage is that no special application is needed, and even “dumb” phones can text. Unfortunately, it’s prohibitively expensive to obtain one.
Other apps that access bar code information: There are a variety of apps that scan conventional bar codes and provide the user with product information, such as shopping-comparison apps, and several dieting apps (notably, Weight Watchers) that provide nutrition information.
Clickable Paper: With ClickablePaper, you simply scan an image and then have the opportunity to choose from an Amazon link, a YouTube, or a website, and also share on social media. Apps for this very new technology, which is developed by Ricoh, have only been available since late 2013. Challenges in its implementation include educating people about it, so they know there’s rich content available in the image, and providing a strong enough incentive that they will download the app.
Augmented reality: Augmented reality, or AR, is a form of virtual reality that layers video, sound, and images over the user’s view of the world, creating a composite image — essentially, the user’s reality is “augmented” with much more information. Unlike QR codes, augmented reality doesn’t load through an Internet browser — instead, it streams directly to smartphones and tablets (as well as wearable technologies like Google Glass) through an app. There are an amazing variety of apps available that use AR technology for everything from finding constellations in the night sky to accessing tourism and travel information to locating your car in a parking lot.
Augmented reality is commonly used in entertainment and gaming, military training, robotics and for other purposes, and marketers are beginning to tap its almost unlimited potential. Launched in 2011, Blippar is an example of an app that can be used to create all kinds of AR experiences. The company has just acquired Layar, another augmented reality firm.
Augmented reality is still unfamiliar to many people, and AR experiences are relatively expensive to create. That said, AR Marketing claims that the technology has evolved more over the past 12 months than in the previous 12 years. As the cost goes down and more consumers discover it, AR will become more and more commonplace.
How can this kind of technology become more effective?
For any scanning technology to get results, marketers are going to have to up their game. Many of them require a significant investment on the part of the marketer from both a creative and financial standpoint, and most require the user to download an app. But instead of focusing on the fact that it can be done, marketers are going to have to focus on why it should be done — in short, the benefit to the consumer. There has to be a significant incentive for the consumer to go to the trouble of obtaining the app and sampling the content. The incentive could be anything from the “wow factor” of well-done augmented reality experiences, to a really compelling offer, or elements of both.
We expect this technology to continue to evolve rapidly, and new market leaders may emerge. QR codes may become obsolete in marketing within the next few years, as new and better scanning technologies emerge and gain market share. Ultimately, AR may replace other scanning technologies entirely. As always, we’ll keep an eye on the latest developments.