By Anita Wadhwani/USA Today
NASHVILLE — Mobile tags, action codes and QR codes (for “Quick Response”), two-dimensional bar codes — designed to be scanned by a smart phone — are popping up in more and more places further separating the smart phone-less from the smart-phone user.
On newsstands this week, the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition offers extras such as videos of bikini-clad models accessible through bar codes scattered throughout the issue.
On country star Tim McGraw’s Facebook page and fan materials, bar codes give fans access to a free music video and a chance to sign up with McGraw’s “mobile fan club.”
Real estate agents post them on front lawn for-sale signs, coaxing prospective buyers to hop out of their cars, scan the tags and leave with all of the listing information and photos they’ll need to follow up — and perhaps buy.
Tech experts believe the 2-D codes are on their way to becoming marketing and sales tools as ubiquitous as Facebook or texting and as familiar as they already are to people who live in Japan, Europe and, to a lesser extent, bigger U.S. cities such as New York and San Francisco.
“Like anything, its use is going to depend on consumers’ getting comfortable with it,” said Michelle Beauchamp, assistant professor of marketing at Middle Tennessee State University. “But they’ve been doing it in Japan for a while, and you kind of feel like we’re behind the times.
“It’s something that adds value without costing customers too much. If it’s a good experience, consumers are going to keep using it.”
Marketing data point to increasing use of the technology. Consumer trends tracker MediaPost reported that 57% of Facebook and Twitter users said they have scanned a mobile bar code at least once in the past year, while as many as 40% had done so five or more times in the past year.
A survey by Scanbuy found that mobile bar code usage jumped 700% in 2010 compared with 2009, with a big uptick during the Christmas shopping season when big-box retailers such as Best Buy started adding the codes to their product packaging.
Bar codes, music do mix
Red Light Management, an artist management company, recently added the bar codes to fan materials for its roster of artists, which includes Dave Matthews Band, Steel Train and country artist McGraw.
Red Light’s Evan Cooper said the company, prompted by tech-savvy artists including McGraw, is committed to staying on the leading edge of mobile technology under the belief that most music fans are particularly open to new types of electronic media experiences.
“This is cutting-edge technology, but I think music consumers in general are pretty engaged in digital culture,” Cooper said. “They’re listening online. They have iPods. Music is in the digital realm. They’re one step closer to it than if they were consumers of, say, cattle feed products.”
AT&T, which developed Red Light’s codes, launched its own proprietary technology in August that requires the download of a free AT&T reader to scan.
Microsoft has its own tags and compatible tag readers. A host of freebie websites have multiplied that allow novice users to create their own unique alphanumeric embedded square bar codes by entering the data they want bar code swipers to be directed to.
With the resulting mix of codes and code-readers, and the variety of smart-phone systems — iPhone and Android, for example, are sold embedded with a different reader — one challenge of more widespread use is overcoming compatibility issues.
Robert Russell, AT&T’s Atlanta-based mobility product management marketing director, said that global discussions are already underway to make the use of bar codes more standard.
“A lot of what’s being discussed is how to make this ecosystem more standard,” said Russell, speaking from Barcelona, Spain, where the Mobile World Congress was convening recently with standardization of mobile reading technologies part of the discussion.
Businesses note benefits
One advantage that large corporate players such as AT&T and Microsoft have in the market — besides working cooperatively to create global standards — is creation of back-end code management systems that enable companies using their codes to keep tabs on who’s using the bar codes.
“Every time a code gets scanned, it brings 20 to 30 different metrics associated with the consumer, from the type of operating system being used (in the phone) to other things a consumer has voluntarily decided to enter into the scanner’s settings,” such as gender, age or other demographic information to create a user profile, Russell said.
For small-business owners such as Neal Clayton, who operates BrokerSouth Real Estate Partners, the codes are an obvious way to reach more potential buyers in a tough sales market.
“Some people might argue the fact that you’re giving people all the information, while in sales you want people to call you so you can prequalify them, not just anonymously view your information,” said Clayton, who has replaced his clients’ for-sale yard signs with all-new signs offering bar code scans.
“But children of baby boomers have grown up with keyboards in their hands, and you have to let go of some of the conventional wisdom to adapt to new technologies,” Clayton said.