Technology can have a huge impact on the marketing efforts of small businesses. Most of the technology is low cost or free but requires time and a little knowledge to take advantage of. This series of posts will focus on practical examples to apply technology to small business marketing. In this first post, I will detail some practical ways to implement barcodes into small business marketing, with a focus being on QR barcodes.
Smartphones are popular. Those “magic phones” can do a variety of tasks and most people that have them are rarely out of arm’s reach of the devices. Most modern smartphones are capable of scanning barcodes through embedded or third-party applications (one such application that I have used is RedLaser). Through these applications, you can check prices of products online and at local stores as well as get more information on the products themselves. But not all barcodes are equal; there are many variations to the common (or not so common) barcodes.
The standard barcode that most of us are familiar with is considered a one-dimensional (1D) barcode. They are printed on practically all products you buy, encoding a limited amount of specific information that businesses use to identify the product. By utilizing algorithms and encoding methods, more information can be added to the barcode within the same physical space, increasing the density of the information available. With this extra information, smartphone makers and application designers are able to trigger distinct events, such as links to websites, contact information, and text messages among others. There are many different ways to encode the data, but one of the most popular is the QR, or Quick Response barcode.
QR barcodes are considered two dimensional (2d) barcodes. Many people have seen the barcodes before but most people are not familiar enough to know what they are or can do. QR barcodes can compress a tremendous amount of information into a small physical footprint. They can be encoded with error checking so the data can be retrieved easier in case the physical representation of the data is damaged, such as with a sticker that gets scratch or the printing on a crumpled brochure. The more information that is encoded, the more complex the design. The more complex the design, the larger the design must be displayed to help reduce problems retrieving the data. With QR barcodes, you typically get either large and complex or small and simple. Encoding a small amount of information will allow you to reduce the size of the barcode and implement it into your design, advertising, and marketing in unobtrusive ways. One way to encode smaller amounts of information is to use a URL shortening service.
URL shortening services, such as http://bit.ly or http://goo.gl plus others, generates a very short URL from what can be a very long URL. For example, http://goo.gl/YISon is a short URL for this post, http://bluecapra.com/2011/practical-small-business-technology-marketing-part-1-barcode. From a small business standpoint, http://goo.gl/YISon is much easier to enter and write down than the full URL. Personally, I don’t feel that the short URLs should ever take the place of your business website on printed material due mainly to the fact that they are not associated with your brand, but they do have important uses. Some services, specifically http://bit.ly help by offering custom short domains for free via their Pro user service. The upside is that the domains are easier to remember and associate with your business and brand, but the downside is that it is still a http://bit.ly URL.
A note of caution: While researching other sites that offer URL shortening services, I came upon this post about Lybia taking seizing the domains of short URLs providors that end with “.ly” I am not sure of the validity of the worry, but the concept that small business owners are depending on URLs that they don’t control is cause to pause for a second and consider if there is another way. There are ways that URLs can be shortened with your current domain (if your domain is short) but that will be a focus of another post. Be warned; it is vital that you control how customers access your business. If you registered your domain through a company, ensure that the domain is registered to you, not the company that registered it for you. Several years ago, after building a site and brand for 2-3 years, the company that hosted a website of mine did not renew the domain, even though we had paid them to do so two weeks before. The result was the domain expired, our site went down, and we lost the domain. The company said we did not pay on time, we had proof we did, and the hosting company was not willing to do what was right, fix their mistake, and get the domain back. That domain has been gone for over 5 years now and hopefully one day, we will get it back. If you depend too much on domains you don’t control or domain shortening services that for some reason or another stop their service, you may be scrambling to salvage the situation. Just a thought.
You can get an entire custom short domain from http://bit.ly as an Enterprise user, but the fee per month is considerable from a small business standpoint. Utilizing some not-so-fancy server programming, a web designer can utilize their own domain to shorten long URLs and page links, but that is beyond the scope of this post (if you are interested in becoming your own URL shortening service, check out this post from Livehacker.com). One of the best uses for the now shortened URL is to encode it into a QR barcodes.
Scanning QR barcodes
When a smartphone scans a QR barcodes, either encoded with a full sized URL or a short URL, the user is prompted to open a browser and surf to the encoded link. The beauty of using the URL shortening services is that you can make the QR barcodes physically smaller (and less complex) due to the reduction in information that is encoded. Even with increased error correction or other graphical changes, the QR barcodes that utilize the shorter URLs are more effective at conveying the data to the end user since they are smaller and simpler. This may not be an issue if you have a larger physical space, but you may not want to print a two inch by two inch QR barcode on the back of your business card to give customers an easy way to get to your site. With the short URLs, you can reduce the physical size to a quarter of that or smaller and still be just as effective driving traffic to your site.
Driving traffic to your site and business is one of the goals of small business marketing. Tracking that traffic is extremely important for marketing so that different marketing efforts can be compared and improved, continued, or ended. Both http://bit.ly and http://goo.gl generate the QR barcodes of the link you want shortened and provide data on the traffic via those short URLs. This data that is gathered is not very detailed, but is very useful when compared with other data.
Let’s take for example a fictional company XYZ, Inc. XYZ, Inc is developing a marketing plan that will advertise in three different national magazines, each with a different niche appeal. The company can utilize three landing pages on their website that targets content useful to the readers of the specific magazines, but with the same basic information. The company can shorten the URLs of each of the pages and encode the short URL into a QR barcode. An advertisement will then be created to include the appropriate QR barcode and then sent to the different magazines. Now, here is the good part; when a reader sees the add in magazine A and pulls out their smartphone to scan the barcode, the traffic is logged as a click through that link. Same for magazine B and magazine C. After a period of time, the traffic to the company site that each magazine advertisement generated has been tracked and can be compared. By utilizing the QR barcodes in this way, XYZ, Inc can better track the effectiveness of their advertising efforts, making changes when needed, exploring other options backed by real data. The only addition the company did was a little website work and generating a few QR barcodes.
Generating QR barcodes
There are many free web-based QR barcode generators. Many companies that offer third party applications that scan barcodes will generate the QR barcodes on their website. One such company mentioned earlier is RedLaser. The encoding sites not only encode URLs, they encode contact information (vCards and MeCards), triggers for text messages (SMS), unformulated text, as well as other information. Specifically, the RedLaser site will encode text, phone numbers (that trigger a phone call after a user confirmation), URLs, SMS or text messages, e-mail messages, contact information and calendar events. Many of these features can be utilized in creative ways to help small business marketing. Specifically, the triggering of text messages can be a very useful function for businesses.
Many business have reward and customer programs. One such local business I see pass nearly everyday is Tropical Smoothie Cafe. One thing I noticed was in-store advertisements telling customers to text “TSCMOB” to 30364 to join their customer program. The program sends text message with discounts to the subscribers on a regular basis. What if you encoded that information within a QR barcode? Customers can get their smartphones, scan the barcode, and signup for the program without ever entering any text into the phone. The amount of text required to signup for the customer program is very minor, but it still takes effort and time, even just a little. As business owners, if we want our customers do to something, we need to make it as simple, automatic, and as “frictionless” as possible. It doesn’t get much simpler than scanning a QR barcode and confirming the message. Try the image to the left and see for yourself; QR barcodes even work on computer monitors or laptop screens.
From practical experience, I found it difficult to get vCard encoded QR barcode to function the way I wanted, providing the contact information in the correct fields when using an iPhone to scan the barcode. I did have better luck with the MeCard, but the amount of information that is contained in the MeCard is significantly smaller than the vCard (for an explanation of the differences between vCards and MeCards plus other uses for the information, please checkout this post)
No matter what information you are trying to convey, technology is often there to help you. As a business owner, there is a fine line between enough information and too much information; too much information tends to overwhelm customers while too little prompts them to look elsewhere for the answers to questions. QR barcodes, while not universal, are gaining more wide spread use and are popping up in places you would not expect them to be (like menus, business doors, and from what I have seen recently, the packages of string trimmer parts). When the internet was just getting started, some companies rushed to put their URLs on printed material where anyone interested would either remember or write the address down to lookup later. With the advent of smartphones, people could visit the websites on the spot. Now, with QR barcodes and the information encoded within the graphic, the transfer of information from business to consumer is nearly effortless. Isn’t that the goal of advertising and marketing, to transfer information to the consumer?
Take some time and explore the use of QR barcodes and how they could be applied to the marketing of your small business. Creatively applying this bit of technology will show many consumers that you are familiar with technology and could provide a great advantage over the competition.
In summary, here are some steps to take to add QR barcode technology to your small business marketing:
- Determine how to utilize the barcodes; text messages, links to web pages, contact information, etc
- Get a short URL – http://goo.gl or http://bit.ly if needed (or make your own)
- Generate a QR barcode for the specific method you are trying to utilize; http://goo.gl or http://bit.ly for the short URL, http://redline.com for contact information and SMS/text messages
- Print the barcodes on stickers to apply to pre-printed documents, in advertising or marketing material, and any other way you can think of.
- If using the barcodes to drive traffic to your site, check the URL shortening service site to track the traffic and gather data
- Analyze the data, adjust your plan, and make improvements
Let me know what you think about the article or if you have any suggestions or comments on better uses of QR barcodes.
The next installment of Practical Small Business Technology Marketing will focus on setting up a local server. Thanks for reading