Six Simple Rules for QR Codes

I’ve written and lectured on this quite a bit lately, so I thought I’d post a summary of best practices for QR Codes and other forms of 2D barcodes. With all the hoopla about integrated media (adding mobile engagement to print or video), it seems that a lot of marketers and advertisers are taking the “ready-fire-aim” approach. QR Codes are not new; they’re just getting a late start in North America. They have enormous positive potential, if used correctly. When used incorrectly, they’ll make you and your campaign look foolish.

For the long version of this list, email me:

RULE 1: Keep the “Data Density” Low

The more data you encode the denser the resulting tag will be. A “matrix” of more than 33×33 data pixels increases the risk that it will not be scanned or processed correctly. This holds true for URLs. The shorter the URL, the less dense your QR Code image or tag will be. Use a third party URL shortener like or TinyURL, if possible, or create short subdomains.

RULE 2: Print Conditions Matter

QR Code images or “tags” should be at least one inch (2.54 cm) square if the consumer is holding the printed piece. For posters and display media, it needs to be large enough for easy scanning. It must also have sufficient margins around the image. QR Code tags should always be printed for use in optimal viewing conditions and on media suitable for mobile users (e.g., on pedestrian mall signs, not on freeway signs).

RULE 3: Make It Easy to Download a Reader

Most smartphones in North America do not come with 2D barcode reader software preloaded. Until that changes, every QR Code campaign must include a simple means of locating and downloading the software. One great approach is 2DGO (, a free 2D barcode assistant.

RULE 4: Make the Landing Page Mobile-Friendly

Nothing will kill your 2D barcode campaign faster than directing users to an ordinary Web page. What works on a regular browser will often frustrate and anger the very people you’re trying to reach. Make sure your landing page is optimized for mobile use.

RULE 5: Offer the User Something Valuable

You’re asking a mobile user to spend his or her time with your brand on their personal, handheld device. Make the experience worth the effort. Offer something the user actually wants — something that meets a real need.

RULE 6: Give the User Something Meaningful To Do

Every QR Code scan and its mobile experience represent potential value: a sale or lead, a more brand-loyal customer, a long-term business relationship. For that to happen, the mobile landing page must include some meaningful, desirable action that the user can take — one that makes sense on a mobile phone. (The list of possible mobile responses is long, but a campaign should only use those that really fit.)

Always give the mobile user a real reason to interact with your brand. Just printing a QR Code without creating an engaging mobile experience is like building the door but forgetting to build the house.


What Is “Interactive” Anyway? (Part 2)

In Part 1 of this blog, I lamented the lack of consensus on what constitutes effective interactivity for digital magazines. Since then, I had the opportunity to ask more questions during my Gilbane Boston panel session on Mobile App development “from the trenches.” The panelists represented both business and consumer titles.

The real question, it turns out, is less about embedded multimedia than it is about personalization, relevance and immediacy of content. For magazines, interactivity has always been about connection with the story; digital media has merely made that connection more complex, raising new technical and economic challenges for publishers.

The Gilbane panelists each discussed the pros and cons of developing interactive content. They praised the new, tablet-friendly design tools from Adobe (Digital Publishing Suite), Zinio, WoodWing and others — recently augmented by the QuarkXPress 9 announcement. They also expressed concern over rising costs (designing for multiple screen layouts, video production, etc.) vs. the unknown circulation and advertising benefits on a new, untried platform. Beyond that, however, they each expressed the notion that embedded media alone was not the answer.

Geoff Shaw of The Sporting News discussed their recent tablet app, The Sporting News Daily. Video and photo gallery embedding are standard fare, although user-generated content is limited by NFL and other content policies. Social media tie-ins are also prevalent. (Commenting has had to be curtailed to avoid endless “Yankees suck! No, Red Sox suck!” exchanges.) Beyond that, however, what has proven more successful is the delivery of time-sensitive, magazine-quality content to readers. Readers want the depth of storytelling that magazines offer, but they also want immediate gratification. While RSS and Web feeds can provide the latest scores, Shaw feels that a digital magazine edition can provide such data in a more satisfying, engaging manner — quality as well as quantity.

The next stage, according to Shaw, is to customize content still further — according to individual user preferences for particular sports, teams or players. Interactivity at that level would mirror the Daily Me concept theorized years ago by the MIT Media Lab. Difficulties still abound, not the least of which are privacy concerns and the reluctance of readers to even create such profiles. Nevertheless, Shaw feels that the model holds promise for truly interactive magazines.

Automation and XML were cited as cornerstones of cost-effective interactivity. Shaw envisioned a data-to-template workflow that would be essential as more tablets with differing screen sizes are introduced. Another panelist described the use of a centralized XML repository of content, from which users could customize their own content, whether viewed on a device or even printed on demand. Needless to say, publishers will need to get creative with content licensing before this model can extend beyond a single title.

Paul Michelman of the Harvard Business Review summarized the interactivity dilemma nicely. While rich media and customization can certainly boost reader engagement, through “nonlinear storytelling,” the idea of an enhanced magazine is too often constrained by arcane circulation rules and publishing norms — not to mention unproven revenue models. While social media tie-ins are intriguing, there are no guarantees that their use will create the same lasting engagement that good writing and design has done in the past. To make things worse, technology is outpacing consumers’ ability to use it well — or predictably.

In short, true interactivity in a digital magazine is hard. However, as Michelman noted, we need to do it anyway.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)

E-Book ’em, Danno

For the past few months, I’ve been privileged to work with the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) on their latest study, Consumer Attitudes Toward E-Book Reading ( The first of four reports, covering each of the planned survey fieldings, is scheduled to drop the week of January 17. Some of the emerging trends are stunning.

One of the clear trends is the decline of PCs (desktops, laptops and netbook computers) as preferred reading devices. Dedicated e-readers, such as Kindle, Nook and the Sony Reader, are rapidly displacing these for trade titles. (Educational titles are another matter, but that’s a separate BISG study.) Tablets and other multi-functional devices like the iPad are also growing in popularity, but not nearly as much as dedicated e-readers. We also noted that Barnes & Noble’s Nook, despite the fact that it was only 12% of the growing dedicated e-reader segment, scored highest in customer satisfaction, compared to Kindle and especially iPad.

We paid particular attention to the “power buyers” — those who acquired e-book at least weekly. Their demographic indicators (younger, more educated, more urban, etc.) are particularly valuable to publishers looking to future markets. Publishers struggling with e-book economics ignore this group at their peril.

The study dealt with the “cannibalism” issue: whether e-book acquisition negatively impacted the purchase of printed books. The answer, especially for the power buyer segment, is yes. However, total acquisition numbers (both print and e-books) are up. This means that publishers will have to address pricing and other supply chain issues rapidly, developing business models adapted to this growing consumer segment.

There is more analysis in the summary report — which is well worth the price. (BISG also sells access to their Real-Time Reporting system, for publishers who need to access all the survey data.) Whether or not 2011 is “the year of the e-book” is frankly a meaningless question. The future is already here.

— John Parsons (


What Is “Interactive” Anyway? (Part 1)

As publishers go through the five stages of grief over dying media, I’m struck by the bargaining phase. For many, it consists of attempts to insert interactive components into their digital editions, hoping to strike a deal with advertisers headed for the door. “Just wait. Your ad will be next to a video that everyone will be watching.” As new systems and e-readers proliferate, we seem to think that magazines will magically revive once we figure out how to make static content interactive.

This belief begs the question: What does it mean for a magazine to be interactive? Technically, embedding a Web link in a digital edition qualifies, but the result is rarely satisfying — especially on a small-screen device, or over limited bandwidth. Email or phone links fare better, but are intrinsically boring, and subject to platform limitations. (A phone link that works on a smartphone may fail on a tablet or Flash-based applet.) That leaves most publishers with the standard alternatives: galleries, audio and video.

Photo galleries are making the transition from Web to digital editions without much fanfare — but also without substantially raising the fortunes of magazines. Conventional rights and usage limitations have restricted the potential for legal image sharing, via an iTunes-like sales mechanism. There is lots of unmet potential here, on both the editorial and advertising side of things.

Audio and video seem to be what most publishers mean when they use the word interactive. Entertainment titles would seem to have the edge here, since they already have tracks and footage to insert. Few other magazines have such resources, however. As a result, we’re seeing some truly terrible media inserted into editorial and advertising e-pages, mainly because it’s possible.

Keep in mind: there are already strong media venues for audio and video; let’s call one “TV,” just for fun. Most of them are preferable to listening and watching inside a digital edition. As bandwidth improves, the video experience in a digital edition—and on mobile devices in genera l— will also improve. But the video medium itself is not intrinsic to the magazine oeuvre, and so will not automatically draw new subscribers or advertisers.

There are exceptions, like the live Webcast of a satellite launch carried exclusively in the digital edition of Via Satellite magazine. (The advertiser bought a special supplement designed around the Kazakhstan event, which was replayed when you viewed the publication post-launch.) However, in many cases audio and video only work as shorter clips, promoting the real thing on another medium.

A lot of CG animation and even gaming interactivity has emerged recently, creating big splashes for some publications. Beyond the initial wow factor, however, these raise serious concerns for magazines. As with audio and video, there are better venues and bigger budgets for CG. Making a really cool 3D animated magazine feature might be possible once or twice, but what do you do every month after that, and at what cost?

The real answers to the question of interactivity — and whether it can really save magazines — are inherent in the medium itself. “It’s a magazine, stupid,” should be our watchword when someone says “interactive.” So, what does that mean? What are magazine-appropriate interactive features? Some already exist, sort of, while others are still glints in developers’ eyes. All will take time and money to implement – without guarantees.

Many of them, dear reader, will be discussed in my next blog.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)

ISBN There, Done That

E-books have created both opportunity and havoc for publishers. Readers have begun to love (or at least claim to love) the benefits of e-reading on a screen. However, the processes for traditional book creation, distribution and use (based on a physical artifact) are fundamentally different from those of a fluid information medium. A few agile technology companies have realized short-term financial gain, but for publishers there are few clear, sustainable best practices for e-book publishing.

One particular business practice, the use of unique ISBNs as identifiers, has had success in the process of tracking and selling physical books. However, publishers have inconsistently applied ISBNs to e-books, often relegating this task to intermediaries or abandoning it altogether in favor of proprietary identifiers.

There are valid reasons for this. Different stakeholders (authors, publishers, distributors, retailers, aggregators, libraries) have different economic reasons for wanting a unique ISBN on a particular work. A standardized ISBN approach is fine in theory, but no one really knows the impact of change on existing practices and IT systems. E-books themselves are more easily modified and aggregated with other content—begging the question of when there is a unique product to which a new ISBN must be assigned.

The biggest problem is the sheer number of unknowns in the process. While some companies are moving forward with their own solutions, most of us haven’t really asked the bigger questions. Is a 13-digit ISBN model adequate for this mutable medium? How can an identifier developed for a physical delivery supply chain be successfully applied to an information-based supply chain? What are the business obstacles to a uniform, high-level ISBN solution? How does one identify a digital work that may (or may not) be comparable to an original print version?

For that matter, is the phrase “original print version” a meaningful concept any longer? For many publishers, this is scary stuff.

Thankfully, help is on the way. Both the Book Industry Study Group and the International ISBN Agency are undertaking projects to gather current industry practices and map out a high-level solution. Ultimately, this could lead to a revision of the recognized standard or, at the very least, an effort to better define what constitutes a “unique product.” As it did for physical books, there is reason to hope that a uniform ISBN approach will do much to contain the costs and promote the effective use of e-books. Until then, however, it’s going to be a bumpy night.

John Parsons (originally published in
Book Business
; re-posted with permission)

For Advertisers, Will QR Codes Blend the Print-Mobile Experience?

Ignoring Harold Ramis’ dire warning: “Don’t cross the streams,” advertisers are daily crossing the streams of media experience, combining Internet and mobile interaction with more traditional fare ― most notably television. Whether our brains can really handle the cascade is an unanswered question, but there is no turning back; consuming one media while interacting with another is “in.” (Text “Amen” to 987654321, if you agree.)

Television is only the first medium to experience this on a large scale. Print advertising, believe it or not, is probably next. The imminent prospect of QR Code (the name is derived from “quick response” 2D bar codes) usage in movie posters, retail store signage and product labels means that print ads in magazines and newspapers will ― and, in fact, already are beginning to ― follow suit. Once the public acceptance of scanning printed pieces with smartphones reaches a tipping point, QR Codes will likely become as commonplace as UPC codes are today.

QR Codes, in brief, are two-dimensional images containing encoded data. (There are other 2D codes, but QR Code appears to be winning.) The process was developed by a Japanese auto parts manufacturer, but is now an open, ISO-governed spec. The more data and error-correction employed, the larger the code gets. Just about anything can be encoded, but the most common use is for shortened URLs, preferably pointing the user to a mobile-optimized site. Unlike the disastrous CueCat experiment of 1999-2000, QR Codes do not require a proprietary scanner, just a smartphone with reader software.

Barriers to Adoption

There are still significant barriers, but these are falling. Until recently, downloading QR Code reader software was a separate step ― and often a barrier to proceeding further. The latest version of Google’s Android and Nokia’s Symbian OS now include pre-installed readers, however, with Apple and even RIM purportedly following suit. Phone CCD camera technology still cannot match a dedicated scanner, but even that gap will close.

Another problem is that QR Codes are decidedly ugly, although firms like Warbasse Design ( are inventing new ways to include codes in more attractive modes ― such as its clever Iron Man 2 campaign. Also, as smartphone cameras improve, the codes will also be printable at smaller sizes than the current 0.75-inch minimum.

Adoption Trends

Widespread QR Code usage will be common in the entertainment industry first, followed by fashion and clothing manufacturers, the auto industry and―eventually―by other blue chip brands. The reason why entertainment leads the pack is obvious: Movie and TV trailers are easy content to package as a meaningful mobile experience. Other brands will have to work harder, to avoid the pitfall of sending users to a nondescript or non-engaging landing page or―worse still―one that breaks the mobile browser. Above all, QR Codes in print ads need to provide real, exclusive benefits or special offers, such as loyalty program points or e-commerce discounts.

QR Codes may even have benefits on the newsstand. Customers at Wal-Mart and Barnes & Noble may not buy all the magazines they browse, but they might scan a code, if suitably motivated. Where that code leads is up to the publisher and its advertisers.

When to Start

Some proponents believe that the QR Code “tipping point” is only six to eight months away, while others believe that camera hardware limitations will hold things up for two to three years. In either case, it needs to be in everyone’s media planning now. With all the attention being focused―justifiably―on interactive digital editions, publishers and advertisers must not ignore the potential of scanable codes in their printed medium, and the engaging mobile sites to which they must lead. They must also resist the temptation to use QR Codes badly, wasting readers’ time on unsatisfying mobile experiences.

The time to prepare is now. Publishers and advertisers who believe QR Codes are limited to Japan, or to young hipsters, should remember how odd it first seemed to hear about reading emails on cell phones.

John Parsons (blog originally published in
Publishing Executive
; re-posted with permission)

The App’s The Thing

As the iPad frenzy continues, magazine publishers are once again headed for the gold fields of digital editions (or DEs). Last week, Time launched a splashy — and expensive — iPad edition, and Zinio’s reader has become the #1 free app for the iPad, to name only two examples. Apple has left itself vulnerable to an Android/Flash counterattack, but the DE 2.0 bubble has clearly begun. Not everyone will survive.

Tablet-based digital editions — on the iPad or elsewhere — are beginning to explore truly useful interactivity. First generation DEs were often little more than digital facsimile flipbooks, the better ones adding search, article sharing and the insertion of URLs. All that has changed. Time’s new iPad wonder was created with newly announced WoodWing technology — allowing InDesign users to easily add photo galleries, videos, live data feeds and other non-print elements while creating the print version. The final product includes flexible article reading views and other nice touches for multimedia viewing. Early audience feedback has been positive, although the $4.99-per-issue price has not gone over well.

The early bumps will be worked out, including the chaos of multiple vendors creating multiple user interfaces, and visibility limitations for display ads. Even Apple has generously offered to help on the in-app mobile advertising front. These are evolutionary changes, however. The real DE revolution — the issue that will make or break a magazine’s efforts — is the use of interactive, truly personalized apps within the greater app that is the magazine’s digital edition.

WoodWing has anticipated this, allowing designers to insert interactive “widgets” in each issue. Other DE developers are moving in this direction. More than slideshows and video clips, these embedded apps represent publishers’ and advertisers’ best hope for creating real engagement — and a reason to bet on the success of digital editions on any platform.

Personalization is the key to a successful embedded app, and to the digital edition that features it. Giving the subscriber reasons to keep using the app — whether or not they buy anything today — will make it a thing of value, a compelling motivation to prefer the DE over the printed version. The possibilities are endless, from collections of one’s favorite recipes to business surveys to vacation itineraries, and so forth. Creating and saving actionable information, based on individual needs and requests, will be at the heart of successful apps within magazine DEs.

Embedding video or games in a digital edition might seem like a good idea, but there are plenty of media and entertainment companies that do such things better than most magazine publishers. Engaging, personalized apps, on the other hand, are new to almost everyone. They can also leverage the inherent storytelling and data gathering strengths of any good magazine and its advertisers. Let the creativity begin!

John Parsons (originally published in Publishing Executive,
at; re-posted with permission)