Liven up print marketing with eye-catching QR codes

(This article originally appeared in my Digital Marketing column in the Denver Business Journal on June 18th here.)

This is not a recommended execution :)

In the last several years, square patterns of black-and-white smaller squares have popped up everywhere. Sometimes they tell you to scan them with your mobile phone. Or they just assume you know what to do.

These eye-catching but perplexing designs are called QR codes, for “quick response.” Some marketers refer to them as 2D bar codes since they provide more information than a typical bar code. In short, they enable anyone with a web- and camera-enabled phone (which is virtually everyone now) to scan the code and retrieve information in return.

They add interactivity and a direct-response channel to anything with an (almost) flat service. They excite marketers because they can deliver information to consumers in many forms, including phone numbers, text messages, app downloads, photo galleries and links to websites for shopping or video watching.

Advertisers first began experimenting with QR codes about three years ago when smartphones — which have the required ability to scan the codes — grew in popularity. They first appeared in print ads as a way to make the ads more interactive. Newspapers and magazines especially loved them as they helped make their ads more relevant to younger, more tech-savvy consumers.

Today, the codes appear everywhere, including on fruit labels in the grocery store, clothing and jewelry, company vehicles, billboards along a highway (bad idea), sides of buildings up for sale (great idea), tattoos … the list goes on.

Why have QR codes come so far so quickly? First, the fantastic growth in smartphone sales — there are now more smartphones than “dumb” phones — allows everyone and their iPhone-owning mother to scan the codes. This growth undoubtedly will continue. Some experts predict there will be even more smartphones than humans by year-end.

There are also more apps available to scan QR codes and some come preloaded with new phones, eliminating the need to download a QR code-scanning app. Further, there is now an abundance of free QR code generator tools, which have made it easy for anyone to create the codes.

Marketers have found an affordable and easy-to-launch tactic to catch the attention of their busy, phone-obsessed consumers. And recent data show that consumer usage of QR codes finally is increasing.

A January 2012 survey by iModerate Research Technologies revealed that more than half of all smartphone users had scanned a QR code, with one in five purchasing an item after the scan. To the delight of marketers, 70 percent of survey respondents reported that scanning and accessing information was an easy experience.

Even the government sees potential in QR codes. The U.S. Postal Service is discounting postal fees this summer for companies whose mailings include QR codes that lead shoppers to mobile-optimized websites. They want to educate advertisers on mobile technology and how it increases the value of mailings.

With any new marketing tactic, there exist many examples of poorly thought-out campaigns. Blogs and photo galleries are devoted to bad QR code executions. Keep yourself off of these sites by following these tips for effective QR code usage:

• Where to use them — Begin by adding QR codes to magazine and newspaper ads, catalogs, signs and handouts at events, business cards, and sales brochures.

• How to encourage usage — While QR code usage is growing, it doesn’t hurt to include brief instructions reminding consumers how to use the codes. Be up front with what they’ll receive when they scan and consider providing something that’s not accessible from other channels. Exclusive rewards work well in mobile.

• What information to provide — The temptation is to simply direct consumers to your business’ website. If you must go this route, make sure it’s a mobile-optimized (read: enjoyable) experience. Retailers, in particular, should drive scanners directly to a shopping page for a specific product, turning any print material into a revenue-generating storefront.

Also consider sending traffic to an engaging video, such as someone using or evangelizing about what you sell. Mobile phone owners love watching videos. L’Oreal reported that a recent campaign using QR codes to drive scanners to product demonstration videos and a mobile shopping website led to a 7 percent conversion rate, considerably higher than typical direct response campaigns.

• How to measure them — Look at how many times the code was scanned, then use your standard website analytics to track visitors from that scan and see what they did. Compare their activity to your other advertising sources and you’ll likely see a significantly more interactive audience.

One of digital marketing’s main benefits is to add more interactivity, information and measurability to other forms of marketing. QR codes illustrate this benefit perfectly. They also serve to integrate print and outdoor marketing efforts with your website, email, social media and mobile marketing efforts. It’s the 21st century way to do direct response.

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