QR Codes: Reports from Early Adopters

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August 2011
by Linda Carlson

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Linda Carlson writes for IBPA’s Independent magazine from Seattle, Washington. She can be reached at linda@ibpa-online.org.


If you carry a smartphone or an Android, you probably know all about QR codes. If not, you may only have noticed the squares patterned in black and white on product tags, in magazines and catalogs, and on a few Realtors’ for-sale signs. Something of a Luddite? You may be thinking, “Q-what?”

QR (for Quick Response) codes are among the most popular barcodes in Japan, where they were created by Toyota subsidiary Denso-Wave in 1994. The images consist of black modules arranged in a square pattern on a white background. As Denso-Wave explains on its QR Code page (denso-wave.com/qrcode/index-e.html), a QR code is considered two-dimensional because its information can be read in both horizontal and vertical directions. By contrast, an ordinary barcode can be read only horizontally.

The result: a QR code (or another two-dimensional code from competitors of Denso-Wave) can carry several hundred times more data than a barcode. Depending on whether characters are alpha, numeric, binary, or Japanese kanji, a QR code less than an inch square can be encoded with as many as 7,089 numeric characters, or approximately 800 words. They can be read in any direction, and they can be read even if part of the code has been damaged—two significant advantages when compared to the more familiar rectangular barcodes. (A diagram of a QR code, indicating each functional element, is part of the description at en.wikipedia.org/wiki/QR_code.)

More than two years ago, an Information Week blogger wrote:

“Once you have the bar-code reader installed on your mobile device, you just scan the codes and the code activates “something.” Many times it will activate the Web browser and navigate to a predefined Web site. . . . See an ad for Coke that interests you? Scan the code and it downloads the Coke ringtone. Scan the code on a billboard for Target and get an instant coupon delivered to your mobile device. Scan the code on a bus stand and get instant details on how far away the next bus is.”

What the Codes Could Do

For publishers, QR codes mean new opportunities to engage readers both before and after they buy a book. Like anyone with a business card, letterhead, or other printed office supplies, you can use the codes to take contacts to your Web site or Twitter home page, your online media kits, a YouTube video about your company, or a Facebook page.

Along with informational and promotional messages, you can use QR codes to bring up the cover of a new book, a video featuring the author, or an instant coupon for the digital version of the book. You can sticker a book cover with the code that takes a browser to the New York Times review of the book, a Web page listing the awards the title has won, or an infomercial-style video with a new endorsement. Instead of struggling to get hundreds of words of promotional text on a book’s back cover, you can print teasers with “Read more” followed by a QR code to offer a detailed author bio, lengthy testimonials, or a screen show of images. Or you can use a single back-cover code to bring up audio of the author reading an excerpt.

QR codes also offer the reader of a traditional printed book instant access to additional content, the kind of content that digital publications have been introducing. When Deborah Robson at Nomad Press does her next book on knitting, for example, she can accompany photographs of different kinds of wool with codes that bring up videos of each sheep breed and show how its yarn is cleaned and spun. Or she can diagram a stitch and add codes to let readers access photos of the same stitch used with several different yarns and needle sizes.

If You Use Them, Will They Come?

This is not fantasy. At Purdue University, a communications professor founded Ubimark, whose first publication more than a year ago was an enhanced edition of Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days. As the video at ubimark.com/in shows, most pages of the paperback have QR codes that lead to maps, video, or clips of the movie versions of the classic. Ubimark says it will combine the QR technology with print-on-demand publishing to continue adding and updating links.

For an example of a new book that uses codes to access additional content, look to Marin Bookworks in San Rafael, CA, where Joel Friedlander included 27 codes in client Pamela Lund’s Massively Networked: How the Convergence of Social Media and Technology Is Changing Your Life.

Although the initial 50 copies went to what Lund considers Web-savvy readers, only 15 of the codes had any hits, and most of those got only one or two hits in the first two months these advance copies were out. Her password-protected Web site with videos embedded for book buyers did not get much traffic either. “This hit rate is very low,” reports Lund, who began marketing the full run of her book in late May and is watching to see what effect promotion will have on use of the QR codes.

Sheila Ruth of Imaginator Press in Baltimore, MD, hasn’t seen much of a response yet either. Still, she is positive about the codes. “My impression is that we haven’t yet reached a critical mass of users where these codes are going to generate a lot of traffic, but that they have a lot of potential for the future,” she says.

Several IBPA members report they are already using QR codes for promotion. The most enthusiastic publisher I heard from is Kate Sullivan at Candlemark & Gleam in Bennington, VT, a digital-only press where Sullivan says the greatest challenge is driving customers from physical ads to digital products. “It’s very difficult for people to remember a book’s title or author and then go online and buy it, even if they have a Kindle or other e-reader, and it’s even more difficult for them to do when you’re advertising in a print magazine or at a convention or other nondigital venue.”

For Candlemark & Gleam, she says, QR codes are the solution. At this writing, Sullivan credited QR codes printed on 1,000 postcards and in print ads for 500 hits on book Web pages and an estimated 75 sales. “Not a bad conversion rate—higher than with many ad campaigns we’ve done.”

Assorted Experiments

Living Oracles in Hayden, ID, prints a code on each author’s business card that links to the author’s Web site, and the publisher creates bookmarks for an author to distribute with a code that leads to that author’s book page on the company site. “We also have used a code to direct a user to a ‘special offer’ page with a discount code and a link to our shopping cart,” says founder Pat Adair.

To celebrate its 40th anniversary and to demonstrate its commitment both to a tradition of quality book publishing and to the digital future, D&M Publishers in Vancouver, BC, has made a QR code the central component of this year’s catalog, Web site, and promotions. Marketing director Emiko Morita says the embossed QR code on its catalogs leads to a special Web site, fortyyears.ca. This month a contest for D&M classics, either in print or digitally with an e-reader, will launch on that site.

Nath Jones uses the QR code on her business card to promote her series of e-books. “I’ve found that the QR code makes the business card a much more valuable marketing tool,” she says. “Many people have not become familiar with these tags. It’s fun to introduce a person to the technology while talking about the e-book series.”

The novelty of the code helps her engage with strangers, she points out. “It buys time with the people you meet—the phone comes out, the tag is scanned, the page loads, all the while I’m talking about my work. When the conversation is over, the e-book is already pulled up on the person’s phone.”

The value of the QR code as a talking point is reinforced by the recent trade show experience of Ruth at Imaginator Press, who chairs festivals and events for MidAtlantic Book Publishers Association, an IBPA Affiliate.

At its booths at spring events, MBPA displayed QR codes for obtaining discounts, samples, or extra information about members’ books; and for entering its drawing, learning more about the association, and getting a list of publishing startup resources. “We didn’t get as many scans on the codes as we had hoped, but they did generate some interest,” Ruth reports. “Most people were not familiar with QR codes but were very interested when I used my phone to demonstrate how they worked.”

She adds that she found the QR codes displayed by other publishers at BEA very helpful in gathering information to review when she was off the exhibit floor. “Once I scanned the codes, they were stored in my phone and I could load the pages and other material later.”

At PassPorter Travel Press, Dave Marx reports that the company is not yet using the codes, “but it seems almost inevitable that we will. We’ve long provided links in our publications to supplemental online content, and printing QR codes in our books (and providing an app that will then link to that supplemental content) seems a natural extension of what we already do.”

About the QR Code Environment

Scanbuy, Inc., a New York mobile barcode technology company, estimates that 30 million Americans have a code-reader app on a cell phone, and its statistics for first quarter 2011 show an 800 percent increase over the past year in the scanning of two-dimensional bar codes like QR codes. Scanbuy also reports that scanning of two-dimensional codes this year exceeded scanning of one-dimensional codes like the UPC for the first time.

As early as February 2011, roughly three-quarters of the people who responded to a Baltimore marketing agency’s survey of smartphone users across the United States said they’d be likely to remember an ad with a QR code. A third of those surveyed said they had actually used a code, usually (53 percent) to get a coupon or discount. Almost everyone (87 percent) said such deals were why they would use a QR code. Two-thirds of the respondents also said they’d use the codes to immediately access more information, with just about half saying they’d sign up to receive information.

Among the things this survey did not indicate was how many smartphone users make purchases with those phones. A recent New York Times article, “Retailers Retool Sites to Ease Mobile Shopping,” reported that sales through mobile devices are far lower than expected, with both customers and merchants blaming the difficulty of reviewing and inputting information. “It can be hard to examine items on a small screen, and the pages are often slow to load. Perhaps most frustrating, the process of entering information on a mobile keyboard requires either surgical precision or very tiny fingers,” the Times story said.

Although a survey by Tealeaf Technology indicates that 85 percent of online shoppers want to be able to shop via smartphone, the Times article went on to say that few retailers have created apps or modified Web sites to make such purchases easy: “Many retailers point to Amazon’s apps as worthy models. Unlike most retailers, Amazon started developing mobile Web sites in 2006, before the first iPhone was available. To minimize typing, Amazon offers bar code scanning, voice search and automatic fill-in on typed searches.”

One indie bookseller has received national publicity for its use of the codes. As the Wall Street Journal recently pointed out, Skylight Books in Los Angeles displays codes next to staff-recommended books in the store. If copies of a book are all sold out, customers can scan the code for the book and instantly place an order on Skylight’s Web site.

Noting Some Negatives

QR codes do have shortcomings. As Dave Marx of PassPorter points out, in books, they’re not as compact as hypertext links, and, he says, “It’s unlikely that we could use QR codes as liberally in print as we use hypertext in our e-books. As we continue to move toward what may be, for us, a nearly electronic-only future, QR codes will probably be a transitional technology rather than a transformational tool.”

Dan Macherione at eFfusion Publishing Group in Ormand Beach, FL, adds that he doesn’t think they have much of a future because they appear only on printed matter. “Links and widgets are used for online marketing, which is cheaper and more effective than printed matter,” he notes.

Macherione, who questions consumers’ awareness of QR codes, brings up another point: The current space allowances for most group advertising programs will not accommodate both a cover image and a QR code.

And Ruth of Imaginator Press, who saw so many codes at BookExpo America, notes that they can be difficult to scan if cell phone reception is poor, as it was in many parts of the Jacob Javits Convention Center during BEA.

Another issue: Although QR codes are by far the dominant two-dimensional code at the moment, there are other providers, and not all reader apps decipher all formats.

Finally—and obviously—you have to have something for the QR code to lead people to, ideally something that will turn a lead into a sale. For publishers who have already created Web sites, Facebook pages, audio excerpts, and/or trailers for books, this is less of an issue than for those who haven’t, but in any case it’s wise to remember that the cost of creating a video to be accessed with a scan can run to thousands of dollars.

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