Crack the code to open up new communication lines

Barcode technology is a low-cost and effective way to get consumers interacting with your brand, but only if your content and format hit the mark.

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Mobile tagging is no longer a new technology; it has reached a tipping point in recent months that has catapulted it into the mainstream, and more brands and retailers are now exploring how it can make their advertising go further.

Upmarket supermarket Waitrose placed 2D barcodes on its TV and press ads in December, enabling customers to scan a code to access recipes from Delia Smith and Heston Blumenthal and information on festive offers and products.

Meanwhile publishers like Hodder & Stoughton are using 2D barcodes as a way to bring offline media, including press and outdoor ad campaigns, into the online space.

But do 2D barcodes really add value to the consumer, or are they just the latest fashionable marketing accessory?

The proliferation of smartphones – penetration in the UK is growing at an annual rate of 70%, according to comScore – has had a profound effect on the way people connect with advertising, which opens up more opportunities for businesses, argues Paul Lyonette, head of mobile advertising in EMEA at Microsoft Advertising.

“People can access much more, so there is the potential for brands and marketers to talk to individuals in richer, more engaging ways, whether that’s the transfer of information via a tag, a browser opportunity or an application-based experience,” he says.

Despite these advancements in mobile, marketers are still not using the technology to best effect. Instead of developing a mobile website, businesses often direct consumers to their standard website. Independent mobile consultant Howard Furr-Barton explains that using the technology in this way is a waste of time. “It’s not rocket science. A standard website usually doesn’t work very well on a mobile handset.”

Instead, the content as well as the format needs to be tailormade. Consumers are not going to appreciate long-form content accessed via a 2D barcode, he adds. Marketers need to consider how consumers view mobile content.

Furr-Barton advises: “You’ve got to look at mobile from a completely different perspective. Mobile is a light snack of a medium. I’ll happily watch a short YouTube clip that a friend sends me, but I’m not going to sit down and watch an episode of The Apprentice.”

But mobile tags can be a useful and relatively cheap tool for marketers wanting to attract consumers to their content, adds Furr-Barton. “2D barcodes are a really cost-effective mechanism because you can produce one for free. With any advertising that you do, you can give an inch square away to a 2D barcode and that instantly gives you that interaction and engagement with your customers.”

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Eurosport incorporated a QR code (a type of 2D barcode) into its print advertising for its live coverage of the Australian Open. The QR code directly connected users to the Australian Open live scoring section of Eurosport’s iPhone app, the matches in progress and fellow tennis fans, courtesy of the app’s interactive functionality.

Eurosport UK director of marketing Matt Horler says it will now use the technology more frequently because it adds another level of consumer engagement. “The addition of the QR code enabled us to take the reader from print to a mobile TV environment where more content could be easily accessed,” he adds. “We intend to use QR codes again to promote various sporting events, and plan to use different media titles to generate a body of learning about download habits ahead of London 2012.”

Similarly, the Waitrose Christmas campaign enabled customers to scan a QR code with their mobile device and be directed either to the Waitrose mobile site or the specially designed Waitrose Christmas app for the iPhone, iPad and Android phone.

The experiment resulted in more consumers interacting with the retailer’s online recipe service, explains Fiona Hall, innovation manager on the Waitrose ecommerce team. “It enabled our customers to engage straight away with our rich online recipe content, Christmas promotions and offers and our festive product range.

“The number of scans we had well exceeded our expectations for the campaign. We were also able to track the success of different media, with TV being one of the best performing.”

However, one major criticism of 2D barcodes is the lack of explanation by brands about how to use the technology, namely the fact that consumers have to download an app to read a tag.

Hall admits that it is sometimes difficult to explain to consumers how to use mobile tagging. She says: “It was easier to explain the QR code technology in some media than in others. For example, we were able to give a short explanation of what customers had to do in our print advertising and our newspaper, Waitrose Weekend, but this was not possible in our TV ads.”

Airline JetBlue failed to communicate how people could access content via a QR code on its poster campaign, according to Piers Fawkes, president of New York-based trends research and innovation company PSFK. Fawkes, whose agency has recently published a report on mobile tagging in conjunction with Microsoft Tag, says the airline’s campaign was confusing.

“The whole ad is a QR code and if you look carefully, the little black dots make up pictures of holiday destinations. I tried to scan the big ad, expecting to get sent to a holiday destination. I didn’t realise you weren’t supposed to photograph the whole ad, just a little QR code in the bottom left-hand corner,” he explains.

While poor communication can be a major issue, the technology itself is flawed, says Fawkes. “There isn’t a reader that can scan all types of mobile tags. A universal reader may change the way people use codes.”

However, some industry experts predict that contactless technology will eventually supersede QR codes and iron out compatibility issues. Instead of downloading an app to read a barcode, the technology will be part of the phone software, enabling consumers to tap a product with a handset to gain instant access to information about a brand.

In the meantime, marketers should take advantage of this nifty method of driving traffic to their content. Just as long as they tell consumers how to use it and take them somewhere they want to go.

case study

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Publisher Hodder & Stoughton is using QR codes to help with the launch of The Land of Painted Caves by Jean M Auel, which is due to be published on 29 March. It is the sixth and final book in the Earth’s Children Series.

It will use 20 different 2D barcodes that will send users to the same web page. Each code will enable the publisher to track the most effective part of the campaign, says Vickie Boff, head of marketing at Hodder & Stoughton.

“We’re going to be using QR codes across all the different media that we’re printing up,” she explains. “These will be individual codes, so we can track exactly from where people have linked through to the website.”

The first book in the series came out 30 years ago and the series has since sold 45 million copies worldwide, but using mobile technology boosts fresh interest in the series. “It’s a great way to give people additional content around a book. If it’s an existing author who has a huge number of other books already available, we can use that to promote the other books,” explains Boff.

The data the publishing house gets from the QR codes is invaluable in finding out how people are connecting with the media the company puts out, and helps inform the business about how it should be communicating with consumers.

“It’s useful to know what has worked for a particular genre of book for when we plan future campaigns,” says Boff. “Is it because people have all seen an ad in a particular place? Is it something on the London Underground? Or more to do with our retailers? We expect it will vary from book to book, but generally we think it will be quite genre-specific.”

Being able to collect data also makes QR codes appealing, she adds. “It’s very instant and quick to set up a code, and it allows us to carry on a conversation with our customers that bit longer.”

It also gives some legitimacy to the marketing spend. “For a long time it’s been very hard to track exactly how marketing affects sales directly. So it gives us extra information on that side,” says Boff.

  • 2D barcodes are only as good as the content and the platform they allow consumers to access.
  • Standard websites don’t work well on a mobile handset – build a dedicated mobile version of your website to reap the benefits of the technology.
  • The content, as well as the format, needs tobe tailormade for mobiles.
  • Explain to consumers how to use the technology. A mobile tag may not mean anything to consumers.
  • Use 2D barcodes to monitor engagement with previously hard-to-track channels like press and outdoor.

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