Mobile barcodes – a square matrix of black and white dots – are becoming more familiar sights on billboard and newspaper ads, product packaging or websites or on mobile tickets and coupons. Mobile barcodes have evolved from the common barcode found on all products on supermarket shelves, only they contain a lot more information. When a customer scans a mobile barcode with a camera phone (assuming the phone has the appropriate software), depending on the data in code, it will hyperlink to your mobile site, for example. If sent as part of a mobile ticket, the customer simply presents the barcode on their phone screen to the scanner for speedy admission to an event, or if sent on a mobile coupon, it can be redeemed at checkout by placing the phone under a scanner.
Let Laura Marriott, the acting CEO of NeoMedia Technologies – a specialist provider of barcode applications – and a former president of the Mobile Marketing Association (MMA), be your guide to mobile barcodes.
What is a mobile barcode?
A mobile barcode is a graphical image that stores digital information. Whereas the linear barcodes commonly found on products in store are one-dimensional, storing data in series of vertical bars, mobile barcodes store information in two dimensions, vertically and horizontally as a pattern of dots. This means that 2D barcodes can store thousands of characters of data, while their predecessors, the 1D barcodes, are limited to 10-20 characters.
Mobile barcodes can be used in many ways. For example, they can bring static marketing and advertising campaigns on billboards or in press to life with mobile engagement and interactivity. In retail, barcodes can help shoppers by providing additional information on products, such as nutritional or safety details or by adding products to a virtual shopping basket when shopping on the mobile Web. Barcodes can be used for mobile ticketing or promotions such as discount coupons. By embedding mobile barcodes into product or delivery packaging, suppliers and logistics companies can more easily track deliveries and update stock information.
How do they work?
There are two common use case scenarios. Either the consumer scans a mobile barcode in an ad or on product packaging using their camera phone or the consumer presents a code displayed on the screen of their device to be scanned in store or at an event to claim a discount or gain entry.
• The consumer scans: an application called a barcode reader turns a camera phone into a barcode scanner. This reader may come pre-installed on the device; if not installed, it will need to be downloaded by the consumer. The reader uses the camera to capture the image, then analyzes the 2D barcode (some readers will also decode 1D codes), which may open a mobile URL, start a mobile application or contact a call center.
• The consumer presents a code: if the consumer has received a pre-paid m-ticket or a promotional m-coupon by multi-media messaging (MMS) or has previously scanned a code from an ad, they redeem their voucher or verify their event ticket by presenting the code on the mobile screen to a staff member armed with a 2D barcode scanner.
• Barcode providers, such as NeoMedia, generally give the barcode-reader application away free of charge to consumers. The brand and/or agency will pay for the barcode-management package, which generates and manages the unique codes, charged by the number of codes issued or the number of codes scanned by the consumers. If used in retail, or with events or travel m-ticketing, this also requires investment in the 2D barcode scanners.
How many different varieties of mobile barcode are there?
There are a number of different 2D barcode symbologies i.e. types of code. These are often divided into proprietary and non-proprietary codes.
1) Quick Response (QR), Data Matrix and Aztec codes are types of non-proprietary 2D barcodes. The specifications for all three symbologies are subject to rigorous review and approval by members of the respective technical/industry trade body. As these codes are free to use by the public, increasingly device manufacturers or mobile operators include the barcode readers as standard on their handsets.
2) There are also plenty of 2D barcode symbologies that were designed and are controlled by private companies that require special decoding software only available under license. These include EZcode, Microsoft Tag, BeeTagg, Upcode, Trillcode, Quickmark and many others. These are sometimes called proprietary symbologies. It is argued by the competitors in the other camp that these technologies will not benefit from the same level of peer review as non-proprietary symbologies, such as the QR code.
When considering which type of code to use, it is important for a brand to consider reach. Codes can only be read by consumers with mobile phones with the correct reader. If mobile phones do not commonly ship with the reader pre-installed (perhaps through an agreement with the provider and manufacturer or operator), then the brand must persuade the customer to download the reader before they can participate in the campaign.
Considering the number of 2D mobile barcodes, it is important that the industry works together to agree on open standards and interoperability to ensure the continued adoption of mobile barcodes.
What is the difference between these and the conventional barcode?
The linear barcodes, such as the Universal Product Code (UPC) and European Article Numbering (EAN) codes, both of which are widely used in retail, are comprised of a sequence of vertical bars and spaces. When read by a barcode reader, these generate a product identification number that can be recognized by a point of sale (POS) register, so the checkout assistant shouldn’t need to key in the number by hand. However, the 1D barcode can only contain 10-20 characters and are also easily damaged, which often makes them unreadable.
The 2D barcode was invented in the 1990s to combat these problems, meaning that the size and capacity vastly increased and opened the way for applications that had never been considered previously. As 2D mobile barcodes store information both vertically and horizontally, it can store thousands of characters of data. Part of this extra capacity can be used to store data-correction information that can be used to reconstruct any data should the barcode pattern be partially damaged. This is similar to the technology that is used to restore damaged data on computer disks and digital broadcasts.
How are mobile barcodes used in different types of industries? How will they be used in the future?
In 2010, we saw 2D campaigns used in many industries in a range of diverse ways, though most commonly for marketing and advertising purposes.
With major global brands and retailers, such as Calvin Klein and McDonald’s using 2D codes to provide greater engagement and interactivity to their marketing campaigns, it helps to drive greater proliferation of codes and awareness of codes among consumers and brands.
In retail, mobile barcodes are used to improve footfall into stores, when sent via MMS as part of a mobile coupons or as an offer to be captured from an ad. The codes are verified in-store with a 2D barcode scanner. They can also improve shoppers’ in-store experience, when the consumer scans a code on product packaging, with their phone, it can reveal on screen more information about a product’s nutritional value, or a useful recipe, for example. Also virtual shopping becomes a breeze, when customers can simply snap a barcode of the product that’s running low, it adds the item to their basket - UK supermarket Tesco recently introduced a barcode scanner into its mobile application.
In both the entertainment and travel industries, integrating 2D barcodes into mobile-ticketing applications makes it much easier to validate event or travel m-tickets, the customer simply presents the code displayed on a mobile phone screen to be scanned on arrival. This makes staffing more efficient, simplifying and speeding up the customer experience. It eliminates paper tickets, which is cheaper for the provider, more environmentally friendly and reduces the chance of tickets being lost or forged.
Service and utility companies can use mobile codes as a track-and-trace tool. This helps management teams to follow their workforce’s progress on the ground and keep on top of stock delivery and supplies.
In 2011, I expect:
• Greater industry agreement on open standards and interoperability.
• Larger volume of campaigns deployed by the leading players – Facebook, eBay, Google, Apple – which will help to drive consumer awareness (and hopefully, a significant viral event) around this media element.
• Greater integration of mobile 2D barcodes in retail – both on-shelf and on packaging – for applications ranging from marketing/advertising to loyalty to supply-chain management.
• 2D mobile barcodes becoming an essential part of traditional and digital media campaigns – as commonly seen with the URL address. This is a longer-term goal, but certainly attainable, once we tackle some of the challenges we face as an industry.
Please give some examples of success stories
• When clothing retailer H&M launched a new store in Berlin, Germany, it used 2D barcode mobile coupons to offer a free T-shirt. 78 percent of the consumers who received the push-SMS reacted to the offer within 48 hours. More than 100 customers were queuing in front of the store before the opening, and all 2,000 T-Shirts had been given away within two hours after the shop opened.
• Read the case study.
• The Austrian Postal Service used mobile barcodes to launch their new e-postcard initiative. A multi-channel advertising campaign centered on a mobile call to action using both a 2D barcode and SMS shortcode, which meant that consumers could act at the point of impulse to directly access and download the application needed to create the e-postcards on their mobile device.
• Read the case study.
• In a mobile-ticketing initiative to promote the premiere of Star Wars Episode III in Turkish cinemas, launched with Turkcell, more than 30,000 consumers used the 2D barcode on their mobile phone as a ticket at cinema entrances within one week, resulting in improved customer convenience and yielding cost savings in distribution and administration at the venues.
• Read the case study.
Are there any stats or projections for how big mobile barcodes are today or will be?
Surprisingly, there is limited market data on the size of the mobile barcode market or projections around market size. A few vendors have released data from their barcode-management platforms, however this data does not quantify the size of the market, only the growth in the adoption of their services.
When are mobile codes expected to go mass market?
I believe that in some markets it has already started to go mass market. We’re already seeing impressive adoption by brands, handset manufacturers and operators, and the market is only going to continue to grow as more brands, enterprises and consumers recognize the convenience and opportunities that mobile barcodes offer. Barcodes answer the need for information on the go, interactivity, measurability and traceability.
What challenges does the business still face?
Consumer education and awareness has a big part to play in the barcode market. This will be much improved with the increasing interest in and use of 2D barcodes from big brands like Google, Facebook and eBay. Google’s visual search application Goggles contains a scanner for 2D barcodes. eBay acquired RedLaser – a barcode reading application popular on the iPhone – in June 2010, adding 2D barcode scanning to the app in October, and is embedding the scanner technology into many eBay mobile apps. This all helps to create awareness around the potential for 2D and hopefully help news of 2D spread virally among eBay and Google users.
Another challenge is to increase the number of handsets that have readers pre-installed. The support of manufacturers is essential in order to overcome this hurdle. NeoMedia has been working with handset manufacturers worldwide, recently announced partnerships with Sony Ericsson and Samsung Italy.
The number of different types and variants of mobile barcode symbologies is also an issue. Industry agreement on open standards and interoperability will be particularly important for the continued adoption of mobile barcodes. The majority of the major players in the 2D barcode ecosystem are committed to working closely with the standards bodies to help overcome the hurdles to broad-scale market development through collaboration. Brands want and need this scale.
What resources do you recommend for people who want to know more?
Industry associations and standards bodies such as GS1; CTIA, OMA and GSMA are helping to create and push standards and provide useful educational documents. See for example:
• GS1: Mobile in Retail White Paper
• GS1: Position Paper on Mobile Bar Codes
• GS1 Mobile Commerce White Paper
• CTIA: Camera Phone Based Barcode Scanning
• CTIA: Marketing Guide For Camera-Phone Based Barcode Scanning
Trade publications, such as GoMoNews, Mobile Marketing Magazine and Mobile Marketer, often carry news stories about how brands are using mobile barcodes.
What are your best practice tips when using mobile barcodes?
1) Plan ahead
Mobile barcodes should be an integral part of any overall mobile campaign and be incorporated into digital and traditional media as a key element of the campaign. This will help to ensure that interactivity is a seminal element of the campaign itself and not simply added as an afterthought. A plan for longer-term consumer engagement should also be established as part of the overall campaign objectives. There is no point in establishing an interaction and then not following up and maintaining the dialogue with the consumer once direct communication has been established.
2) What’s in it for the customer?
Consumers generally only opt-in to receive communications from brands when they perceive that it will be of value to them, whether that be in financial terms, by means of giveaways or discounts or in the form of less tangible services based on entertainment and utility. Access to relevant content, discount coupons or exclusive information can all help to grab consumer attention and encourage interaction. This tried-and-tested marketing strategy is a great way to increase your user base and will promote user participation in your campaign. So be sure that your mobile barcode marketing campaign brings value to the consumer in a form suitable for both your brand and campaign.
3) Design and placement
The design of an advertisement is of paramount importance ensuring a strong response from targeted consumers. The incorporation of mobile barcodes in the overall design of an advertisement or publication should be given as much consideration and attention as other elements of the design. Place the mobile barcode where it is clear what its function is and where it is easy to identify and scan. Mobile barcodes should be placed prominently on a page, on a flat surface and away from folds or other features that might hamper scanning. Mobile barcodes should also be printed in black and white as this makes the code easier to scan and read by the majority of camera phones and readers – with the exception of certain proprietary mobile barcodes that use color (e.g. Microsoft Tag).
4) Educate your customers
Consumers will usually adopt new technologies, but marketers must deploy these technologies in ways that make them as transparent and as easy to use as possible. As mobile codes are new to the mass market, particularly in the West, brands need to place descriptive copy next to a mobile code in order to explain what the mobile code does. This may include information regarding how to download a reader, how to scan the code, and what the result of scanning the code will be. This will help to facilitate and encourage consumer participation.
5) Test, and test again
Consumers will be deterred from using mobile codes if they initially have an unsatisfactory experience. So-called ‘dead links’, where scanning a mobile code does not return any information or the wrong information can be damaging, not just for this campaign, but to the adoption of mobile code marketing in general. Always test mobile codes used on a promotional piece using a variety of mobile code applications running on a variety of camera-equipped mobile devices. It is also important to make sure that the content linked to a given mobile code is optimized for display and presentation on the anticipated mobile devices that will be used during the campaign.
6) Analytics – evaluate your campaign
Appropriate analytics can provide vital insight into the effectiveness of a campaign, including important time and location usage metrics. This allows brands to make better advertising purchase decisions and optimize their messaging for mobile codes. The importance to marketers of being able to effectively track and measure mobile code campaigns should not be underestimated. The ability to analyze and measure this data can be effectively used to increase the success and ROI of future campaigns and further ensure optimal customer engagement.
This Q&A contains excerpts from NeoMedia’s white paper 2D Mobile Barcodes which is available as a free download.
• Mobile research (m-research): the insider’s guide
• Most popular content on mobiThinking in 2010
• The false economy of vanity apps
• What is Mobile 2.0? Three expert opinions
• Guide to mobile agencies
• Guide to mobile industry awards
• Guide to mobile ad networks
• Compendium of global mobile stats
• The insiders' guides to world’s greatest markets
• Conferences & awards for mobile marketers, with offers
• The big page of essential links
Follow mobiThinking on Twitter: @mobithinking