Scannable 2D or QR barcodes have long held promise as a way to link active consumers out in the world to online marketing and promotional offers. Scannable codes have turned up on everything from product packaging and movie posters to storefront s and moving buses.
Nevertheless, relatively few mobile users are scanning those codes. A September 2010 report from Forrester Research estimated that only 1% of U.S. mobile subscribers had used a 2D code scanner in the preceding 3 months. And while it’s possible the profusion of code-based marketing campaigns this Christmas drove a higher proportion to try scanning with their phones for the first time, the likelihood is that the number who did so is still restrictively small.
A number of gating factors can account for the disconnect between aspiration and reality. While platforms do exists that allow users to take a picture of a code on any camera-equipped mobile phone and either text or email it to get content, most barcodes are scanned via smartphone apps. New data from comScore suggests the smartphone audience now numbers 63 million in the U.S.—still a minority of the country’s more than 240 million estimated mobile users.
Another key obstacle standing in the way of wider acceptance of mobile barcodes is fragmentation both among the code formats and among the readers users must deploy to read the codes, most of which are proprietary and don’t interoperate. To get the thing to work properly, you need to use the correct scan reader—cluttering up the marketing creative and leaving plenty of room for user error and a disappointing experience.
Wireless carrier AT&T has identified mobile barcodes as an area where it can assert its influence as both a big brand phone carrier and a phone supplier to introduce some measure of standardization in the channel. Last year it launched a suite of services aimed at making barcodes both more familiar to consumers and easier for marketers to design and deploy. The initiatives were linked to AT&T’s Mobile Bar Code Charter Program, a campaign to promote the channel by helping selected brands develop and monitor barcode campaigns in a variety of media, including outdoor signs, packaging, broadcast, Web and print advertising.
“We’re working on removing those obstacles so that eventually an enterprise can put a code out there and get it used,” says Robert Russell, director of industry solutions for CPG and retail at AT&T Mobile. “It won’t matter whether it’s on AT&T, Verizon or Sprint [networks] or which application the user has on their phones. There’s a lot of factors, and we’re not there yet, but our objective is to have an interoperable system where marketers don’t have to worry about reaching only the subscribers of one carrier.”
“Think about the beginning of toll-free numbers,” he says. “They were arguably the first interactive direct-response marketing tool. But initially you could not publish one number that could be used nationwide. That took time to build. Text messaging too was only intra-carrier, not inter-carrier, until a little show called ‘American Idol’ convinced carriers that text messaging was real and they needed to interoperate. We think the same thing should happen with barcodes.”
According to AT&T, about 25 million of the smartphones in the market can use its barcode app, including handsets running Apple, Android, Blackberry and Windows Mobile operating systems. The company started factory installation of the app on all the smartphones it sells last November. The carrier is also working on interoperability agreements with other proprietary code platforms run on other carriers, with no word on when those agreements might come to pass.
Meanwhile AT&T’s Charter Program is still in beta mode, working with a dozen or so largely unnamed marketers from a range of categories including CPG, retail, financial and entertainment. Under the program, mobile barcode services are provided for six months or so free of charge to selected clients—in effect making a market in mobile barcodes.
The services consist primarily of delivering the content marketers want to associate with a 2D code and then the metrics for assessing performance, but they can go beyond just content management to include, for example, optimizing a Web page for mobile so that users who scan a code on a catalog or bus ad get delivering to an effective, enjoyable mobile Web site.
Russell says the Charter program members are just now starting to introduce their campaigns in to the marketplace. The most recent of these is a mobile barcode promotion associated with Starz Entertainment, which operates the [Starz cable channel] [[ http://www.starz.com/]] and partners in AT&T’s U-Verse HDTV/Internet service.
Starz is using AT&T mobile barcodes to promote “Spartacus: Gods of the Arena”, an original series running later this year on its channel as a prequel to last season’s “Spartacus: Blood and Sand”. Starz has created print and outdoor ads with 2D codes that users can scan to get special offers and additional information on its other programs and movies. The “Spartacus” campaign launched on Jan. 1 and will run through June 30.
“Starz is pleased to be AT&T’s first TV/network programming member for this program,” Starz vice president for affiliate sales and marketing Jennifer Schouten said in a release. “AT&T mobile barcode technology provides our subscribers and prospects immediate information on programming, services and special offers, and it gives them a convenient way to order Starz via mobile devices. Starz plans to offer this new mobile marketing technology to all of our business affiliates as an enhancement to joint marketing campaigns.”
Those affiliates are the cable and satellite operators and telecom carriers who offer Starz as a channel options to their video subscribers.