Communicating To Consumers Through 2D Barcodes


[credit provider=”Vectorportal via flickr” url=””]

Every number associated with 2D barcode growth during the past 12 months is big. Between July and December 2010, barcode scanner use jumped more than one thousand per cent.  Social media users have caught on too: 57 per cent of Facebook and Twitter users said they have scanned a barcode at least once in the past year; 40 per cent said they scanned at least five times.Red Laser, a popular scanning app, has surpassed five million downloads (3 million between June and October 2010).  AT&T recently debuted its own proprietary code scanning app, showing that even wireless carriers are placing their bets on mobile barcode scanning.  And, to emphasise the word “big,” Audi introduced the largest QR (quick recognition) barcode, measuring 159 square meters, to commemorate 100 years of automobile manufacturing.

The ability of barcodes to link to so many different variables—video, downloadable apps, text, email, calendar entry, mobile coupons, phone numbers—make them marketing’s latest “cool tools.” But how can marketers use barcodes beyond novelty? If you’re communicating to consumers through the barcode, how are you first directing them to the barcode?

Following are some answers to these questions, some recent implementations, and suggestions for barcode use.

Barcode Use and Purpose: Beyond Novelty

To move barcodes beyond the novelty phase, marketers need to put them to use as a tactical element (even as a strategic element in some instances) of an overall campaign.  Large retailers have started to pave the way, introducing consumers to the wide array of uses for barcodes.

For example, Best Buy incorporates 2D barcode scanning into practically all of its merchandising displays, giving shoppers a virtual product information catalogue at their fingertips.  JC Penney, specifically with its “Back to School” programs, has found that 2D barcodes and Microsoft Tags used in advertising campaigns provide it with convenient and innovative ways to connect with shoppers.  Customers are using the codes, placed by JC Penney on billboards, magazine ads, and direct mail pieces, to conduct product research as well as to make purchases.  Target does the same; only it has found that reinventing the wheel is unnecessary: the retail giant has opted to integrate mobile scanning into its traditional 1D barcode system.

Barcodes intrigue consumers. Like a “mystery package,” consumers are never really sure what’s inside the wrapping.  In this vein, marketers should use this intrigue to capture consumer interest by linking to product trials, exclusive content, and mobile-only promotions that require immediate interaction.  Barcodes are the newest call-to-action tool and can be used to supplement traditional elements.

One example is a campaign created around the Hewlett Packard (HP) NBA All-Star Game On app. By linking a sweepstakes promotion—one that encompassed all of the various NBA All-Star weekend events—through QR coded media, HP generated significant online buzz.  In combination with the NBA events, the Game On app was also promoted through QR code-enable in-store signage at Staples in order to drive HP consumers to the app’s landing page. This HP/NBA All-Star example illustrates a key purpose of barcodes: they provide an interactive link to traditional media, across multiple venues.

With barcode scanners, the consumer is interacting, almost solving a puzzle, to get to the content.  That being said, marketers need to make some of the elements of this “puzzle” more obvious and apparent in order to spur consumer participation.

Let Them Know: Steer Consumers to Barcodes

While growth numbers are big, barcodes for marketing purposes are still not widely known to those outside of the 2D/QR/mobilesphere.  For marketers to move the needle on widespread adoption, they’ll need to steer those consumers into the use of two-dimensional barcodes.

One approach is to spell out exactly what scanning the barcode gives the user, and how to do it.  Best Buy did this in 2010 with a call to action QR barcode campaign for the launch of Super Mario Galaxy.  In print campaign elements, next to the barcode, Best Buy spelled it out:

“Watch a trailer of SUPER MARIO GALAXY 2 on your phone in three easy steps.  1. Text [numeric code] to download the updated app; 2. Launch the reader app; 3. Hold your phone over the special code (at left)….”

While this is the most explicit way of explaining a barcode campaign, it does take some of the “puzzle” out of scanning the code.  I think it’s best to leave some intrigue in the call to action, like with the HP/NBA All-Star Game On app.

This was followed by a box that contained both the 2D QR code, and clear instructions on how to proceed in order to play.  Instructions are an excellent example of how to steer consumers into using and accepting mobile barcode scanning as an everyday form of retrieving product offers and information.  Instructions also remove any apprehension about using barcodes.

But until customers get to this everyday point, what are some best practice techniques for implementing mobile barcode campaigns? Here are two key 2D barcode tips:

1. Make it Worthwhile

Make the payoff count.  Don’t make consumers go through the scanning process to receive a novel message, or receive product information that’s readily apparent and well known.

2. Make it Relevant

Take advantage of smart phones and their anywhere/anytime capabilities.  The benefits of QR codes and mobile devices can serve both as convenience features for the consumer, and tools for the marketer.  For instance, barcodes tell marketers where someone is when they scan the item, and at when it’s scanned—vital information when it comes to targeting the right consumers, at the right time. Barcodes provide a great way to put incentives on purchases through location-based rewards or trial opportunities. One of the most viable location-based payoffs is to give the consumer information unavailable through other, non-mobile media.

Some tips on relevancy: make sure that barcode campaigns are truly mobile. Be aware of superfluous steps or mismatched (non mobile) media in barcode campaigns. For example, including a barcode element in a traditional (not optimised for mobile) web campaign violates on both accounts: it requires the extra steps associated with smart phone scanning, when simply clicking a link from within a computer’s browser would provide the same results.

While we’ve only scratched the surface on this emerging marketing technology, the consensus among industry experts is that barcodes will survive the “novelty” phase. In fact, it’s likely that barcodes will grow even faster over the next 12-18 months, becoming an important source for consumers seeking product information and promotions.

It’s time to start putting barcodes to tactical use; define their purpose within the overall strategy; and start steering customers to worthwhile, relevant barcode campaigns.

Now that’s a call to action worth creating a code for.