March 3, 2011, 2:04 PM

The code on using bar codes

Retailers are using bar codes, and many are forgetting to give consumers the instruction manual.

Lead Photo

Take a look at the picture accompanying this blog. It’s from a street festival during a recent trip I took to Puerto Rico. It’s a picture of a two-dimensional bar code, of the QR or Quick Response variety. And it’s missing something (besides lack of focus). Something big. Instructions on how to use it and an incentive to do so.

Bar codes are getting bigger as more retailers and brands are realizing they can add them to product packaging and ads to further engage consumers (and hopefully get them to buy). Mobile Commerce Report has had two stories on retailers using bar code in the just the last week.  The retailers are using two-dimensional bar codes that appear as a square with a black and white pattern within, and that can contain much more information than a standard one-dimensional bar code like the Universal Product Code, or UPC. A consumer accesses web content via a 2-D code by activating a bar code scanning app on her smartphone and using the phone’s camera to scan the code. The app recognizes the code and then automatically links the consumer to a mobile web page or mobile web-hosted video or other form of media.

That’s exciting for my nerdy smartphone technology-loving self. And it should be exciting for retailers and manufacturers. Consumers can scan a bar code and see video of a product in action, access a product demo, nab a web coupon and much, much more. But in order for marketers to benefit from bar codes, consumers must first have very clear instructions about how to use them and what’s in it for them if they do.  All it takes is a line of text telling consumers to download a free bar code scanning app, how to scan the code, and the reward that lies ahead if they do.

I recently met with a representative from Microsoft who briefed me on Microsoft’s own proprietary two-dimensional bar code called Tag. We lamented over the lack of consumer education about bar code scanning. What’s the deal, we wondered? Was it cooler to be mysterious and just throw a funky-looking symbol out there? Do tech-savvy mobile marketing professionals think everyone knows about bar codes by now? We couldn’t come up with an answer.

My friends, mystery will only get you so far.  Consumers don’t want to do work to figure out what you are trying to tell (or even give) them. Throwing a QR code on a trash can at a street festival or a Microsoft Tag on a package is like making consumers guess your e-commerce site URL.  And I can assure you that with about 31% of U.S. consumers now owning smartphones as of the third quarter of last year according to web measurement firm The Nielsen Co., there are many consumers, particularly those who have only recently bought smartphones, who don’t know how to scan a two-dimensional bar code with their smartphones. Heck, most consumers still don’t have smartphones.

All it takes is a sentence or two of explanation. Make easy for consumers to scan QR codes and give them a reason to do it. Only then will you begin to realize the true potential that lies in two-dimensional bar code scanning.

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