Following Best Practices for Mobile Engagement with 2D Barcodes

By | May 9, 2011

For better or worse, living in Boston means that I am subjected to quite a bit of marketing and advertising. As I drive in and out of the city, billboards plaster each side of the highway. When I visit any number of watering holes across the region, there’s bound to be an ad or two in the restroom.

Public transportation, in particular, has been overtaken by advertising: quite a number of buses are partially or fully wrapped in ads, the trolley cars have ads on the inside and on the outside, and many stations are plastered with a cacophony of advertising. The commercialization of a public entity like the transit system has a lot to do with the woeful amount of debt the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority, or MBTA, has to somehow deal with. Of course, one of those ways is to create ad space where a large, captive, and diverse audience exists. Many other public entities are using the same strategy of selling ad space to raise revenues under tough economic circumstances.

Because public space is now scattered with marketing, advertisers are trying new things to engage with people in new ways, particularly through the use of integrating a mobile engagement mechanism with a print campaign. One of the more popular engagement mechanisms is the mobile 2D barcode, including the popular QR code, among others. As I’ve written about in the past, these mechanisms are merely that; tools to extend the ad experience beyond the print campaign into a relationship with a person. That means the tools need to be used effectively to garner a successful result.

Yesterday, as I stood on a platform at Park Street station in Boston waiting for my train to come in, I noticed an example of mobile engagement gone awry. I wanted to share it to help those venturing down the path of using mobile 2D barcodes avoid some key pitfalls and perils that can derail any chance for mobile engagement. I looked across the tracks and noticed a large print ad from the Berkshires Visitors Bureau, promoting the outdoor activities that one can presumably experience while visiting the Berkshires. On the bottom-right corner, I noticed a blurry box with a number of square dots… oh it’s a QR code! This example breaks one of the cardinal best practices of utilizing mobile 2D barcodes: make the barcode big enough for the placement of the application.

The image photo above is a pretty accurate representation of what I initially viewed on the platform. Below is a closer look at what the ad looks like, using my iPhone 4’s digital zoom capability:

Finally, I tried using the greatest amount of zoom possible on my phone to see if I could get a clear, “scannable” or “clickable” image of the QR code:

While the size of the QR code may have been big enough for an ad that where someone could walk up closer to it for scanning purposes, the application across from tracks where commuters aren’t supposed to walk on is a significant misstep.

My guess is that before this ad was rolled out into the subway, it wasn’t adequately tested to make sure the code scanned even if a person was at an appropriate distance. Why? There’s no white space surrounding the QR code; all four sides directly abut the imagery in the ad. Another important best practice, particularly with QR codes, is to ensure there is adequate white space surrounding the barcode to ensure that the anchor points can be detected by the scanning application. Without white space, most scanners will have trouble or may not even be able to scan the QR code.

What about wireless broadband reception? If an ad with a mobile 2D barcode is located in a subway, doesn’t that mean there’s no access to the Internet to experience what’s behind the code? At least in Boston, voice and data services from a variety of wireless carriers have been expanded to numerous subway lines, including Park Street station. Nevertheless, wireless Internet access is an important consideration when thinking about using mobile engagement mechanisms.

It’s not clear who exactly placed this QR code on this ad. It could be an ad agency, another type of service provider, or the Berkshires Visitors Bureau itself if it does its own internal design. I’m sure that the group had the best intentions for the use of a QR code. The fact remains, however, that the small code size, the inherent distance from the ad, and the lack of white space all contribute to the fact that this ad will generate zero hard impressions from the barcode itself. Again, a mobile 2D barcode is a tool for engagement; following best practices for use will ensure that mobile engagement with a print campaign can be done effectively.

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4 thoughts on “Following Best Practices for Mobile Engagement with 2D Barcodes

  1. mj

    I see you point in terms of the ad being placed across the tracks. But maybe the BERKSHIRES ad person has no choice of where these go or that these ads are not only placed in the current spot above the tracks but used on the train itself so these have a multi-purpose use to them. You may want to try next time you see one in reach. I have yet to see where you can capture a code but I think some tech firm is working on a laser type of pointer for your cell phone that eventually you can point and scan from over 500 feet away (Get ready Super Bowl blimp!)

  2. Bryan Yeager Post author

    Thanks for the comment, MJ. Good point that these ads may be placed elsewhere, and I’ll definitely be on the lookout to see if it can actually be scanned. Nevertheless, just the mere fact that this code doesn’t have any white space around it severely decreases the chance that anyone will scan it regardless of its placement. Print quality is also another factor, although I couldn’t discern that from the distance I was at.

  3. joef

    The agency develops the creative in somewhat of a vaccuum, solving for the greatest common destinations, and there will always be funkiness in transit campaigns. The good news is the Berkshires have embraced 2d barcodes as an integral part of their marketing campaign. I’d love to know what digital experience is once the code is shot.

    Internal marketing teams are still getting comfortable with how to incorporate the codes effectively into a creative execution without it looking klunky…give it another year and 2d codes will be as ubiquitous as all those little twitter and fb icons in every ad for every company. Super bowl blimp indeed…

  4. Dave

    Well their is no doubt that QR codes gives small businesses also an easy way to go mobile is exciting to small shop owners. It makes them feel that they can compete — at least in one small way — in the world of the big brand marketers.
    The QR code can be used on back and front of your business card, Your brochures and other marketing materials, The sides of trucks and trailers, Product tags and packaging, Convention and event nametags
    Restaurant menus, Event ticket stubs, Point-of-sale receipts.

    QR Codes could link to the Installation instructions,Directions to your business, Valuable coupons and special offers, Recommendations for complementary products and services, Free mp3 downloads
    Customer feedback forms etc.

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