• January 3, 2011
  • By Koa Beck, Editorial Assistant, CRM magazine

Barcodes Reach a New Dimension

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With the advent of smartphones, appealing to customers on the go is becoming more pressing, prompting many companies to seek new ways to engage their customers across print, the Internet, television, billboards, and other channels. Two-dimensional barcodes, or quick-response codes (QR codes), are becoming increasingly popular as a way to do that.

QR codes are simply square-shaped barcodes that let customers quickly retrieve information when scanned and decoded by a special scanner, mobile device, or webcam. The idea behind the technology is that it is much easier to scan a code than it is to type a URL on a phone’s keyboard.

Two leading vendors in the creation of this technology are Microsoft and Ricoh Innovations. Microsoft makes the Tag application, which creates customizable barcodes in both black and white and color that can be placed on ads, posters, product packages, email, Web sites, billboards, or even clothing to then link customers to Web sites. Ricoh’s iCandy desktop application for the Mac or PC lets users create QR codes and scan them using a webcam.

High-capacity color barcodes (HCCBs), the technology that powers Microsoft Tag, are the product of Microsoft Research. Tag is an end-to-end solution that can be scanned by the Microsoft Tag Reader.

Bill McQuain, director of Tag product management at Microsoft, says both customers and business stand to gain by using Microsoft Tag. The product, he explains, is “a marketing technology that allows brands to engage with their customers in meaningful and creative ways with the ability to measure effectiveness, while giving consumers access to useful and fun content in a simple way.”

So far, Entertainment Weekly, Lucky Magazine, Dominos, Dr Pepper, and Ford are some of the early adopters of Tag technology, and McQuain only sees more opportunity ahead. “To date, we’ve had more than 2 billion Tags printed and continue to see highly successful implementations by publishing and retail partners, as well as advertisers and marketers,” he says.

Jamey Graham, research engineer at iCandy, expressed similar sentiments. Though he and his team developed iCandy in 2008 with consumers in mind, the value for businesses became evident. That’s not to say that iCandy isn’t suited to personal use. “I still use it today as a consumer. [My family and I] use it in our house to control our music and videos,” Graham says.

But simply placing a 2D barcode on an item doesn’t guarantee success. “Brands that have provided compelling content to end users have seen the most success,” McQuain says. “If the content isn’t seen as valuable to the scanner, there is a high likelihood they won’t come back for more.”

And while some companies are creating “tag-rich” environments in magazines, retail stores, or on outdoor advertisements, McQuain says the old “content is king” rules still hold true with 2D barcoding. He also suggests taking advantage of 2D barcoding across many, if not all, forms and “mixing up” the content. Linking to mobile Web sites, video, slide shows, contests, and promotions would keep customers more engaged.

“On occasion, companies try to take the easy way out and not optimize the content for mobile,” McQuain observes. “End users have a low tolerance for bad user experiences on their mobile devices. Simply linking to a PC Web site is one of the quickest ways to ensure failure.”

McQuain remarks that Microsoft Tag is “highly effective” as a tool for marketing and appealing to customers in new, unprecedented ways.
“[Microsoft Tag] inspires and empowers participation in a new dimension of mobile communication, integrating the physical and digital worlds to create entirely new types of customer experiences,” he says. “We’ve seen marketers fully embrace this technology and get creative on behalf of a brand—essentially allowing companies to connect their offline marketing with their online marketing, engaging customers when and where they want to be reached.”

Graham envisions 2D barcodes functioning as a gateway to a much larger phenomenon that is gaining momentum: visual search. With visual search, a program searches an image, recognizing all the “natural characteristics” on the page, and then searches the Web based on those characteristics. “Think of it as barcodes without the barcodes,” he says.

Graham points out that although QR codes have proved to be powerful, the downside is that they do take up physical space. This can put a damper on large-scale advertisements as well as print advertisements that have a specific aesthetic in mind.

“[With iCandy], we saw the usefulness of trying to connect the physical to the digital,” he says. “Being able to point mobile devices at physical objects is very powerful. In advertising, people are already experimenting with [visual search].”

Editorial Assistant Koa Beck can be reached at kbeck@destinationCRM.com.

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