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Business Trends: Mobile marketing

Employing QR codes opens new avenues for reaching, educating customers

By Joanne Friedrick
June 05, 2011

When Chef Jose Duarte wanted to tell a fish story, he didn’t write it on paper. Instead, Duarte, who operates Taranta restaurant in Boston, created a Quick Response code and embedded a link within it that would take people to a Web page just by scanning the code with an optical scanning device on their smartphones.

The use of QR codes, also known as 2-D bar codes, is growing quickly in the United States, as marketers find uses for the technology, which began as a tracking system for the Japanese auto industry.

Worldwide usage grew nearly 62 percent between the fourth quarter of 2010 and the first quarter of 2011, according to 3GVision of Israel, a creator of mobile bar code solutions. Excluding Japan, where the technology has been in place for a decade or more, the top users of mobile bar codes in the first quarter of the year were the United States, Italy, Germany, the United Kingdom and the Netherlands. America alone has seen the adoption of this technology nearly triple in just a three-month period, 3GVision reports.

In Duarte’s case, he wanted to show attendees at the International Boston Seafood Show and New England Food Show in Boston in March how this nascent technology could tie a fisherman’s face and his story to a recently caught flounder. So he created a QR code for the fish that, when read by a smartphone, took the user to Trace and Trust, a website where users can track a specific fish, telling them who caught it, when it was caught and the harvest method.

The idea behind his presentation, says Duarte, was to show just how much useful information the code could transmit.

Duarte began learning about QR codes while attending a seminar in Spain several years ago. But he wasn’t able to begin experimenting on his own until the technology gained a foothold in the United States within the past year, especially as consumer use of smartphones advanced.

One of his best-known experiments was the creation of a QR code on a dinner plate using squid ink to replicate the image. “I came up with the idea to put it into food, just for the fun of it,” he says. A food blogger who followed Duarte’s attempt showcased his efforts online and the information “went viral,” says Duarte. William McAdoo, who blogs as The Boston Foodie, was able to scan the code and then call up a Web page that listed ingredients and recipes for the dishes on the plate, such as Maine Lobster Causa.

Because they are more robust than UPCs, QR codes can take users to a variety of media, including websites, videos, coupons and text messages. Most often, QR codes direct users to mobile websites that have been specifically constructed to fit the small-screen format of mobile phones.

Marketers are looking at QR codes to provide enriched experiences for those who scan the images, says Dave Lawson, director of mobile engagement for Knotice, a direct digital marketing firm based in Akron, Ohio.

QR technology is considered to be open source, so anyone can create a QR code using a code-generating algorithm, he says. The cost to do so is minimal, says Lawson, and end users have a choice of code readers that they can download via phone applications.

Where firms such as Knotice come in, says Lawson, is directing companies to make the best use of the technology and to help them capture and interpret data that is generated when people scan the code. The applications that power the readers can require users to share some data such as their GPS coordinates or time of use.

“The data on the scan side means a lot to us, especially for efforts down the road,” says Lawson.

If it seems as though QR codes are proliferating, it’s because the factors have finally come together to make it all work, says Lawson. The technology was languishing in the United States for four or five years, he says, until about 12 to 18 months ago. As cell phone users upgraded to smartphones and network speed improved so websites could load faster and easier, the profile for QR codes and their applications was raised, he says.

 “Plus, marketers were looking for better ways to reach consumers on their mobile devices,” he says.

And because a consumer who does a scan once is more likely to do it again, companies are looking for ways to tie into this newfound interest. Supermarket chains are among the types of clients that are looking for ways to add to the shopping experience by adding QR codes to specific departments, says Lawson.

“They can’t make the fish any better than it already is,” he says, but they can provide customers with easy ways to see when and how it was caught, provide videos on how to properly handle or prepare the fish or provide a link to nutritional information.

Knotice is already working with an Ohio retail chain on such a project, he says. And Lawson surmised that distributors and wholesalers could similarly add value to their retail partners by providing QR codes, maybe as static clings for the seafood case, that would direct consumers to supply chain information — when and where the fish was caught, how it was handled and transported.

Restaurateurs are looking at other uses, he says, such as putting the codes on menus or on employees’ badges so diners can scan them and comment on the food or service. People may be reluctant to take the time to fill out a comment card, says Lawson, but they may be more willing to send a text message about great but also imperfect service.

As the technology is becoming more widely used, Lawson cautions that people not just adopt it to be part of the trend. “Whatever experience you deliver, it should be worthwhile,” he says. He suggests that the first few times someone accesses a company’s QR code, there is some kind of payoff. For a restaurant, it may be a free appetizer or a discount.

“It’s a good way to reward behavior, so then once they are happy, they’ll go back to using it again and again,” he says.

Companies looking to get into mobile marketing should also avoid the mistake of sending people to a video or some other information without an explanation of where they are going and why. “You want to be conscientious about how you roll this out,” he says.

One way to be successful, says Lawson, is to ask them what they want. “When they tell us what they want in a program like this, then they become part of the relationship,” he says. People use their phone for so many activities these days, he says, from e-mail and social networking to shopping. “Because this channel is so personal, it has to be a collaboration.”

Contributing Editor Joanne Friedrick lives in Portland, Maine

June 2011 - SeaFood Business 

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