Monday, November 1, 2010

QR Codes for Writers

Because I work in marketing, I feel duty-bound to pass best marketing practices on to you, since so much of what publishing is about involves marketing.

One of the latest --and coolest--trends I've seen in print media is the QR code. Today I'm going to tell you about them. Forgive the long post, but I hope you'll be as interested in their potential as a tool as I am.

You might not have noticed these unintelligible little squares of black and white pixels, looking like a very poor resolution bit of photocopied enlarged artwork. But these codes contain information--indeed, anything you want. Usually they have web links encoded.

Who uses them?
Currently, smart phones use them. If you have an iPhone, an Android, or a Blackberry Touch, then you can download a free app (just do a search for QR Code in your app store-- make sure it's free; there are plenty of free ones) and then you focus your phone on the code, it snaps a picture, and voila! Bob's your uncle.

What does it do?
The code leads your phone to a website, usually. However, at work I have created them for vcards--those electronic files that contain your business card info, and PDF files that live on my company's web site. In the future, I predict business cards will have QR codes as a standard feature so you can snap it, then have the person's info instantly in your phone, which then syncs with your address book on your computer. I've already tried this. It doesn't work perfectly, but it definitely worked. See? So cool.

OK, so why do I care?
QR codes are starting to make their way into general print media. Those of you who get Pottery Barn catalogs in the mail (*cough* *cough* No! Not me! *cough) may have noticed in the fall/winter preview issue that there's a page with a house covered in snow and Christmas decorations of the sort that you could only do if you had a mansion in Connecticut and were independently wealthy. Anyway, when I saw the house, I thought, interesting. How did they do that photo shoot with all that snow? You know Pottery Barn didn't do that in winter...they probably do their shoots in spring or summer. Well, lo and behold! Just after that thought crossed my mind, I noticed a little QR code at the bottom of the page. Next to it said, "Want to see how we did this photo shoot in the snow?" And I was all "YEAH I TOTES DO; DID YOU READ MY MIND?!?" and then it invited me to snap the QR code to watch a video. The QR code opened a You Tube movie....and voila! (Here's the link if you're interested...short video. They did it in 90 degree California weather.)

Now, Pottery Barn has really made a big push to be active with social media. They have a twitter account, Facebook, etc, and very much want you to join. Whether or not they actively engage with customers, as a company is supposed to do with social media, is another question (no judgement; I just don't know). But the QR code use is a great way to augment that program.

Then the other day I received a direct mail postcard in the mail from Kaiser Permanente, a leading healthcare system in California. Kaiser has a fantastic advertising campaign going on called Kaiser Thrive, in which they encourage their members to "live well and thrive." The program is successful in that it positions Kaiser as a caring, loving, and resource-providing company, and I'd even say that I bet that those three words are stated in their marketing plan.

But anyway, this postcard was about sleep. Specifically, how they want you to thrive with better quality sleep. To help you, they have provided a series of podcasts on a number of subjects--including just nice soothing songs. The kicker? Access it with a QR Code. Below is a scanned-in image of the back of the postcard. (You can use the QR code in this scan, too; click on the image to get a bigger version which might make snapping the code easier.)

Naturally, I tried it, and was delighted to find a whole list of audio links that played without trouble when I chose one.

That's all very nice, but how do QR codes relate to writing?
Good question. Well, since the world is clearly moving to a small, mobile, extremely capable phone platform, we're probably all going to have the ability to use QR codes pretty soon. I found it interesting that big companies like Pottery Barn and Kaiser were banking on it, in fact. I recently started using them in my company's marketing materials for trade shows. I created a QR code to download a special PDF for a certain service in our company. For the guy who runs that service's division, I printed stickers with the QR code and he put them on the back of his business card so people would essentially get his brochure on his business card (if they clicked the QR code). I also put codes on our brochures that were printed at the show, so people could go directly to our web site and look at our completed projects by snapping the code.

There are tons of possibilities for QR codes. The most obvious use is in enhanced e-books, where having a QR code next to the text could allow you to click it, then watch related video, audio, or informational sites. You could click the author's QR code for more info about that author-- or even for a sneak preview of a new book, exclusive to QR code clickers.

How do I create one?
Easy. There are a lot of free generators on the web. I like this one, because it's super simple. Try it. Paste in a web site into its URL field and click Generate. To save the code image, just right-click on the code, select View Image, and then save that image to your hard drive. Yes-- the image will still contain the encoded info even if it's sitting in a folder on your hard drive. Now you can paste it into a Word doc, or a blog post, or even print it out.

Some of the things I like best about QR codes are that they're cool, they're new, and you can use them to encourage exclusive rewards--which is a great way to market.

Now for a special present for you-- a short story
I've created a special one for you, embedded with a short story that I wrote specifically for this post. (Dang, did I go all out for this!) Aim your phone at the screen, click it, and read away. This piece of fiction, called Gravity, is about 1600 words long and is something I dashed off for this post so forgive me if it's dreck. Still, it's short, and that's the main thing. This short story is not linked anywhere but through this code, so this is available only to those of you who use the code to access it. I welcome feedback about it (sierra [at] sierragodfrey [dot] com), but please be kind.

Did you know about QR codes? Can you see the potential in them?


Linda G. said...

Alas, I only have a dumb phone. ;)

Teri Anne Stanley said...

I'll be darned. I got the app, took the pic, took another pic. lowered the resolution on my camear, took another pic, got a lttle chime and thing that says "Sierra Godfery", and about ten words of text, but then when I hit the screen to try to scroll it up, it went back to camera mode...about six times. So I believe you that this SHOULD work. And there is some secret folder on my Blackberry with six copies of your story, I just can't get to them.
This is cool (if you can get it to work), but maybe I'm seems like there is an awful lot of opportunity to use this for evil rather than you think you're going to a recipe for fudge or kittens, but you wind up triggering an underwear bomb in Madagascar.

Lt. Cccyxx said...

I'd seen these but never paid attention. Any idea why these and not the more-compact bar codes? I'm not sure I'd go around clicking on them any more readily than I'd click on masked URLS, but maybe as they get more familiar that will change.

Anyway, I didn't read your story because I'm currently without mobile electronic device.

Sierra Godfrey said...

Linda, you must rectify this matter. (I said rectify!)

Teri Anne - Thanks for trying it! I have found Blackberries to be the most persnickety of the phones with QR codes, and I tested all three in my office. I think like anything, only snap codes from a trusted source (OBVS I'm trusted!) -- otherwise yes, there is the danger of opening super porn or mega viruses.

Lt., I'm guessing the bar codes cannot quite contain the information the QR blocks do. The more information you pack in, like in a Vcard, the more pixelated dots the code gets a bit tiresome, which is why links are really the best use of them for now.

Roni Loren said...

I had no idea what those things were. I have a dumb phone, but this is pretty darn cool. :)

Gemma Noon said...

ooh see I was all excited about this and showed it to hubby, who looked at me as if I was eighty years old and had just showed him this new-fangled tech called e-mail.

I forgot he has a degree in computer engineering. And is a software developer. And is a technophile.

I'm going to go eat cake now.

(I still think they are cool).

Jeffe Kennedy said...

Fascinating! I downloaded BeeTagg to my Blackberry Storm - it determined the correct version for me. Snapped the pic and read your story. I'm impressed by the possibilities, too. Thanks for sharing!

Suzi McGowen said...

I love QR Codes. They're like magic! (The first one I ever used was to get the mobile site for Magical Words. I've been pushing the powers-that-be at work to start using them.

I never thought of using them for myself! (face/palm) Thank you for this great article!

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