Taking QR Codes to the Park

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Company: Fort Smith and the National Park Service

Established on Christmas Day 1817, the Fort Smith Historic Site in Arkansas is steeped in American history. The park includes the remains of two frontier forts and the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Arkansas, as well as part of the Trail of Tears. Occupying 75 acres of land, the park had 77,014 visitors in 2006 and was the film location for True Grit. (www.nps.gov/fosm)

Business Challenge: Like so many other organizations, Fort Smith and the National Park Service (NPS) are trying to figure out how to engage a new, digitally oriented generation that would be just as content watching Old Faithful erupt on a webcam as actually visiting Yellowstone National Park. With money tight everywhere, engaging this new generation had to be done inexpensively.

Vendor of Choice: Google’s ZXing Project

ZXing (pronounced “zebra crossing”) is an open-source, multiformat 1D/2D bar code image-processing library implemented in Java. The focus is on using the built-in camera on mobile phones to photograph and decode bar codes on the device, without communicating with a server. (http://zxing.appspot.com/generator)

The Problem in Depth

It was not that Fort Smith had a problem, per se. It was more that Bill Black, the park superintendent, continually seeks ways to interact with park visitors and a new generation of visitors to the historic site. However, he faces certain limitations on how he can use technologies such as social media. “We pride ourselves on trying to keep on the cutting edge of equipment. We jumped on the Internet bandwagon years ago,” says Black.

He sat through a few conference sessions held by the Arkansas Parks and Tourism Department about information technology, where he heard about QR (or Quick Response) codes—which are two-dimensional bar codes that can be used in a variety of ways. A company can choose from any number of sites that will generate a QR code for free and put that code almost anywhere—on a Web site, a postcard, or even a T-shirt. Then smartphone users can employ the camera to scan the bar code—some phones have the scanning technology built in, but older iPhones and the like will have to download a free app—and are instantly taken to whatever content is linked to the bar code.

“On the drive home, I got thinking about how it might work for interpretation purposes,” Black says, and he began to consider how this technology could be deployed to provide information to park visitors.

The Solution

Luckily, Black was not the only one in Fort Smith, Ark., with an interest in QR codes. Jennifer Boulden, the communications and event services manager for the Fort Smith Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB), was already experimenting with the technology.

“Our CVB has been using QR codes in our marketing since fall 2009,” says Boulden. “In our print advertising, particularly in the conventions and meetings industry, we will often include a QR code on our ads.”

She explains: “The code is embedded with the URL for our Web site—either for the main page or for an internal page that would have a prohibitively long URL to write out. That way, when our potential customers are flipping through the magazine and see our ad, they can use the QR code to visit our Web site directly from their iPhone, BlackBerry, or other smartphone.”

Boulden says the QR codes help set her ads apart from others and deliver visitors to her Web sites. “Because these codes are bold black and white graphical bar codes, and not something people are accustomed to seeing in our industry’s advertising, there’s a curiosity factor that comes into play, as well. ‘What is that?’ they wonder. We typically include some short text next to the code identifying what it is.”

With a little help from Boulden, Black decided these codes could be useful for park visitors, so he considered how best to deploy them. He says, “We needed a purpose for one. We’re only open from 9 to 5, but we have these wayside exhibit panels,” one of which is located near the park entrance. Black says that the panel “gives you a little map and a little introduction. It was a great spot to put up a QR code, especially for people who come in after we close.”

To put his plan into action, he turned to Daniel Evans, a Web site coordinator for the National Park Service. There are a number of Web sites that can generate QR codes for free, but Evans decided to use Google’s ZXing project. He describes it as a simple process that merely requires filling out a few fields. It took just a few minutes and a printer to get the code up and running. Of course you must also produce whatever content it is you choose to link to the code, a process that, depending on what you choose to deliver to users, could be considerably more challenging.

The Outcome

At the Fort Smith National Park, Black and Evans decided to use the codes to deliver an informational video. Because of restrictions placed on the NPS regarding the use of social media—for instance, they’re not allowed to have Facebook pages or Twitter feeds—Black had to partner up with the city of Fort Smith to host the video on its YouTube page. Black and Evans started using the first QR code in May, and when EContent magazine spoke with them in July, they had had 208 views on the video.

Of course there is more to tracking than clicks and views. Bouldon uses a tool that provides additional statistics that she finds useful. She says, “QR codes are also trackable. By creating a free account on a QR code generator, like www.beetagg.com, we are able to see how often codes are being read,” she says. “So far, I’d say the results have been slow but encouraging. The more consistently we place the codes in advertising and marketing, the more results we tend to see. We have also had positive remarks from potential visitors who have discovered us this way.”

As you might imagine, there are nearly limitless uses for QR codes, which can be printed almost anywhere and can even be scanned from a computer monitor. Black says one of the next videos they would like to produce for a wayside exhibit will be about a cannon that the park, because of a limited budget, can fire only twice in a given summer. However, Mother Nature interfered with the filming, which was rained out.

Because it is free, experimenting with QR codes is easy and virtually risk-free, though creating compelling content can be costly. However, such content also can take the form of low-cost videos, such as those that Black envisions.

In Boulden’s case, her codes generally link back to an existing website, so there’s no additional content creation cost. She sees many possible uses for this tool: “QR codes on T-shirts, hats, and other Fort Smith or festival promos; QR codes on the card keys of local hotels, linking travelers directly to our website’s dining guide, things to do, or calendar of events; panels with QR codes with embedded videos at each of our local attractions, forming a QR code tour of Fort Smith; QR codes on premium items given away at tradeshows and in goodie bags.… The possibilities are truly endless.”

This article was originally published in the October 2010 issue of EContent magazine.

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