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 — 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!