A QR Code Linking to Commentary

Integrating print and online has been fraught with futility and clumsy solutions, from URLs printed in reference lists, to rafters of services promoted in print to entice readers online, to the more memorable but ill-fated CueCat. One of the big challenges was that when people were using print, they were often reading in their armchairs or in the lunch room while our tools for migrating them online required them to go back to their desks. It wasn’t an ideal usability arrangement.

Now, another path for integration seems to be opening — the QR Code on mobile platforms.

One big difference this time is the ubiquity of mobile computing thanks to cell phones — a ubiquity identified last year by Morgan Stanley’s Mary Meeker, with usability differences described wonderfully in a slideshow we featured last September. QR Codes fit with ease into the installed mobile computing environment.

Back in 2009, Michael Clarke wrote here about an initiative Google had undertaken to deploy QR Code stickers far and wide as part of creating an augmented reality experience for people whose cell phones have cameras and QR Code readers. Recently, an interesting blog post described 22 ways not-for-profits can use QR Codes to further their missions.

QR Codes are little boxes of printed programming (bits and bytes in binary black and white) which, when photographed using a cell phone that has the right kind of software, can make the cell phones do things like visit a Web site, start an email, start a text, or initiate a purchase.

Popular in Japan for years and increasingly accessible because of the proliferation of phones with cameras, Web access, and pre-installed QR readers here, QR Codes now seem poised to go mainstream in the US. Brands in the US that have used them in the past year include Google, the Weather Channel, Best Buy, Fort, Starbucks, Facebook, Calvin Klein, the City of New York, HBO, Iron Man 2, New York magazine, AT&T, and Clinique.

And I don’t know if this is a first, but the journal I run — the Journal of Bone & Joint Surgery — has just introduced QR Codes on selected editorial pages, in a special advertising page, and as part of print-online sponsorships for free access to premium videos.

We’d been batting the idea around for months. Then, in late Fall, an advertiser approached us with an ad featuring a QR Code. About the same time, thanks to market research, we’d learned that our readers have also been growing more comfortable with their smartphones as information appliances. We decided it was time to forge ahead.

QR Codes are printed on JBJS articles that have associated online-only commentaries from experts, which provide additional context and opinion. The written commentaries are hosted on a blogging platform, which has an auto-sensing mobile rendering feature. Take a picture of the page you’re looking at, read the commentary, and you’re better informed.

One of the commentaries we’re experimenting with is an audio commentary. Snap a picture of the QR Code, and you’ll soon be listening to an editorial overview of an important study in orthopaedic surgery.

QR Codes have the additional benefit of highlighting online-only editorial features with an eye-catching and distinctly digital visual element, something that all the little typographic tricks and shaded boxes under the sun can’t quite replicate. They’re a little larger than we’d like ideally, but not so large as to eliminate their use. Now, we’ll have to judge their utility.

As part of the experiment, we have sold advertiser listings on a special “Mobile Marketplace” page, as well as a special video preview sponsorship for mobile devices (streamed video with all the normal bandwidth accommodations). We’ve also designed a print space ad to show readers how QR Codes work.

For those of you in larger organizations . . . well, let’s just say that the joy of working in a smaller shop can be immense and deeply satisfying on a regular basis, especially when you work with highly competent people. We decided to execute this idea in early December, and we’ve implemented it — all of it, including print page redesigns, audio commentary, modified blogging site, video sponsorship, a special advertising page with sales, and a house ad to guide readers — in under 8 weeks.

Since our QR Codes first appear in our February issues, I have no idea yet (other than a somewhat-informed hunch) whether they’ll work. I’ve seen our first February issue now, and since three advertisers are using QR Codes independently, it feels like we’re in sync with something karmic. In addition, I know that QR Codes have created renewed interest in our printed pages among our editors, Board, and advertisers as they’ve been introduced. This kind of curiosity and “buzz” will likely last for a while.

Print now carries computer commands for the mobile Web. How cool is that!

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Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson

Kent Anderson is the CEO of RedLink and RedLink Network, a past-President of SSP, and the founder of the Scholarly Kitchen. He has worked as Publisher at AAAS/Science, CEO/Publisher of JBJS, Inc., a publishing executive at the Massachusetts Medical Society, Publishing Director of the New England Journal of Medicine, and Director of Medical Journals at the American Academy of Pediatrics. Opinions on social media or blogs are his own.


22 Thoughts on "QR Codes in a Journal — Printing Little Computer Programs for Mobile Integrations"

I really love the concept of these codes to link print to online and drive traffic. We have started to use them in our news magazine, Endocrine News, to link to the online version, to product sales, and CME. Thank you for sharing your experience.

What do you do for readers who read the articles online, or as a pdf on a computer or tablet/phone? Do you just use regular html links to bring them to the same material or is the material exclusively available to print readers?

Do you think this is something of a stopgap move, something to cope with the stubborn refusal of readers to move away from reading via printed out pdf files? Will QR codes be of value if readership moves to reading the electronic versions?

The QR Codes resolve to URLs, so right now, everything is firing up either a browser or, in the case of audio and video, a media player. Nothing is exclusive to print readers at this point, but that might change down the road. We’re testing the waters right now. Also, we have some plans later these tie into to some extent.

Everything is a stopgap move, in my opinion, but this might be a longer-term solution than CueCat was. I think the integration with pervasive, useful, even beloved mobile devices that have fast-improving bandwidth is a longterm trend. Print used to be praised for its mobility, and that’s still true. But now computers are equally mobile. Linking them together? It makes sense to me. We’ll see if our readers agree.

I was just picturing someone reading a pdf on their phone and having to hold it up to a mirror to take a picture of the QR code on the phone itself. Hmmm, wonder if they work properly as mirror images….

Oh, that’s funny, I’d never thought of that. You’d need an iPhone 4 with a forward-facing camera, and then you’d have to take the picture into a mirror over your shoulder.

Some sitcom somewhere will pen the line, “Does this QR Code make my butt look big?” Only the laugh track will laugh.

A good QR code reader should scan a QR code from a saved image so, as long as you can save the code image to your phone, you should be able to read it fine. Also, not all QR codes HAVE to resolve to a browser or media player. It could be a simple text message.

Yes, what the QR code is programmed to prompt on the smartphone can vary. We’re pondering some of the alternatives, but need a good use-case first.

I’m wondering what use these codes might be in driving ad revenue for e-books, as this has been identified potentially as a way of generating extra sources of income to support scholarly publishing in the future (returning to a practice used earlier in book publishing that faded out in the latter part of the 20th century)?

I think that’s a good idea. Books are using them to point to multimedia (maps, audio files), so why not a page of sponsors at the end? Paperback books used to be filled with little ads for other titles and related (or unrelated) products during the heyday of mail-order. You could even offer a specific discount to a code, so purchasers of a hardcover could get a 15% discount on the sequel while purchasers of the paperback might get a 10% discount.

I really like this linking of print to online in such an easy way, and impressively fast from idea to reality.
Here in the UK I’ve been disappointed with the lack of useful QR codes I’ve encountered. The few times I do I’m already on my phone so can’t use them (I bet there’s a new word for the sense of frustration that discovery effects.)
Mostly I like that scientific literature is leading in this useful application of codes, and not a coffee chain.

Indeed. They’ve been in the real world in Japan for a while. Now it seems they’re coming to the US.

NPG has been using QR codes for over one year with some success. We chose to use Microsoft Tags. We are using them to promote web focuses and podcasts for many of our journals. They are printed in the journals as well as on conference handouts and posters. Some QR codes associated with campaigns launched nearly a year ago are still being scanned as recently as January 2011. The codes also feature within our Nature Asia-Pacific product line by linking to Nature podcasts and videos. It is helping to drive greater awareness of our videos and podcasts.

Great to know! I only wish you could have written a post about it on a popular, professional blog of some sort . . . [insert smiley of your choice here]

Starting with the April 2011 issue, NEUROSURGERY will be using QR Codes on an article’s title page to link to author-submitted supplemental digital content; in most cases, a surgical video previously available on our YouTube channel. Our goal was to use the QR code to truly enrich the experience of reading the print journal without taking the focus from the article itself. Since YouTube provides an array of usage data via “insights,” we will likely be able to track any increase in video usage from mobile devices to assess the initiative’s success. To prepare our readership we have prepared a short tutorial that will be published on our social media channels (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bQeQ-sy5AVs).

How ‘techie’ do you need to be to get your head round all this? It sounds perfect for all sorts of things we do but as a small organisation we don’t have huge technical resource. How do I find reliable economic technical help?

There are plenty of QR code intermediaries, most small but reliable enough. Also, things like bit.ly generate QR codes whenever they generate a shortened URL, so you could just grab the QR code image from there.

I just tried using my QR reader to copy the QR code from the computer screen and probably not surprisingly this did not work.

I’ve captured them off screens of all types. The issue is that they have to be a certain minimum size for the scanner to recognize and interpret them. We print them a little larger than we have to, just to be safe. But I’ve captured them off television screens, projection screens, and computer screens without any issues. It’s just that the one in the post is too small.

I think the issue might be that you tried to scan from the thumbnail image above, where the QR code is too small. Click the image first to get the larger version and it should scan fine. It did here.

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