Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Ringing in the New Year

It's amazing to see just how much of the consumer mobile phone market is dominated by the smart phone.  It should come as no surprise that as smart-enabled devices become more available, better serviced and (importantly) less expensive, that more and more people would have them.  A number of years ago, phones like the Blackberry were owned by few: the fortunate, corporate executives and my Dad.  Now, almost every single member of my family has one of some vintage.  We had enough of them that Blackberries alone covered the entire table at the door of the family get-together.  In the past couple months, I caved in and upgraded my mobile device to a Blackerry and I haven't looked backward since.  I am glued to my Bold the same way Christmas stuffing glued to my stomach.  The shift is clear: smart phones are no longer reserved for business-types or the lucky, but are now a tool for a wide-variety of users.  Everyone from high-school (dare I say middle?) to the retired have some kind of smart phone, and use them frequently to update, post, share, like, tweet, comment, poke and upload.

A couple years ago now, my good friend Shaminda introduced me to an up-and-coming marketing tool: the barcode.  It was an application called ScanLife and using your smart phone camera, you could take a picture of a barcode and be instantly directed to web content linked to that barcode.  At the time, I thought this was an incredible tool and to be clear, I still think it is.  The ability to give a consumer all the details and information you want, without using what precious traditional advertising space you have for it, is great.  Even better than using the internet as a supplemental source of information is to use it as a primary source of interaction and information.  For example, Expedia includes a barcode on your itinerary so you can quickly scan your own itinerary to find out if your flights are on time.  Companies are using barcodes as a way of herding consumers towards competitions and ballot forms.  Barcodes are transforming the way marketers can reach consumers, but also how they can interact with consumers.

I am the #1 fan of barcodes.  BUT, I feel there are one too many companies jumping on the bandwagon than perhaps should.  So here is a short (and by no means exhaustive) list of good uses and questionable uses of barcodes:

Good uses
  1. More information - You've got a sign/billboard/poster and there are some details you want the consumer to know about.  For example, you're a university and your poster is about a program you're trying to get some interest in.  However, you clearly can't put a prospectus on your poster.  Here's a good place to give a barcode, linking a consumer to the website where a full prospectus is housed.  Another example: you've got a video game or movie you want to advertise, including a trailer.  On traditional, non-television screen media, this is impossible.  However, if you put a barcode-link to the trailer on the internet, you're able to stream this media to the consumer.  In this application, the barcode is essentially an internet link that's more convenient and nothing more. 
  2. Interactive information - See my Expedia experience for a solid example.  Here's another great example of this: increasingly, wines are coming with barcodes on their label to direct consumers to a website providing them with food-pairing suggestions for their wine.  Some food products are doing similar things, providing barcodes to recipe or serving ideas.  Brilliant.
  3. Contests/Sweepstakes - You've got a promotional contest and you want to direct consumers to the entry page.  Consumers are then going to follow your barcode knowing exactly what they are going to and why.  Good focus for using a barcode.
Questionable uses

  1. Too much more information - Don't treat a barcode as an extension of your advertising.  Your message should be clear and concise enough to convey your message without needing a barcode.  By all means, barcode-away for supplemental or extra information, but keep your key message on the traditional media.
  2. Don't repeat - The purpose of the barcode, in my view, is to supply additional information which without the barcode, would not be possible.  Some companies, worryingly, are simply using a barcode to direct consumers to another version of the same advert.  Consumers are using your barcode seeking new information, not stuff they've already seen.  If you're seen as just noise, or just using a barcode because you can, consumers will know it and tune you out.
  3. Location, Location, Location - Be smart about where you are using your barcodes.  Billboard sign in a downtown or urban area is brilliant.  This includes everything from big-building top signs to posters in bus-shelters.  However, putting a barcode on a subway train may not be so good.  Firstly, being a subway, passengers are going to be spending 99% of their time underground and lack the reception to follow your barcode link.  Secondly, assuming you have reception, taking a picture of a barcode is nearly impossible because you're too busy a) hanging on b) carrying something c) bundled up or d) too crowded to pull out your phone.  Thirdly, assuming you have reception, not doing a) through d) and don't feel silly taking a picture of something just above someone else's head, have you ever tried to take a clear, blur-free image of something with in a moving vehicle?  Subway: bad idea. Another questionable location are the sides of the road on highways.  Drivers have enough to worry about and enough distractions without wanting to try and take a clear picture of a barcode at 100km/h.  That, and it being illegal in many places to have your phone in your hand.  My last example of a bad place to put a barcode is on the internet.  Why?  Why make someone pull out their phone, select the correct application, take a picture and then force them to view your content on a 2 inch screen?  Unless you're directing someone to a mobile-only media, just use a link.  Please.
There is one last use what I am not so sure on: mystery media.  I think that this use is more of a double-edged sword than the others.  Using a barcode on its own could lead to interest due to the mystery of what the barcode is linking too.  This curiosity could lead to some traffic, but it can go the other way too.  Newspapers, such as Metro, seem to like using a barcode to replace putting a story into their newspaper.  I am assuming that these stories are less important than the ones included in actual print, but they still wanted to try and include them in their paper.  I am not so sure this works: I have yet to see someone take a picture of a newspaper barcode to read more of the newspaper and secondly, if it's a fourth-string news story, why would I want to read it anyway?

Barcodes are great, but please use them responsibly.  And stop taking pictures of just above my head, it's awkward and I don't like it.