QR Codes:
not a black-and-white issue

POSTED ON: 04/06/12 TAGS: QR codes ebooks

by Paul Squires

Once upon a time, a phone number and an address was all that was needed for communicating with readers, customers, or the general public.

Now, print has to also contend with URLs, email addresses, and mobile shortcodes. My copy of Moby’s album Everything is Wrong from 1995 has a set of specific instructions, including phone number and modem settings, for dialling into the Telnet server of Moby’s label Mute Records.

For conveying information we have QR (Quick Response) codes to consider, too. QR Codes are not new. They were invented in 1994 by Toyota subsidiary Denso as a way to identify and catalogue parts in a production line. They translate a short string of text – the form most popular to many is the URL. Like SMS, which was developed as a way for engineers to relay information back to base, QR Codes have evolved to be used in a way far removed from their original function.

For publishers, the QR Code can be a handy box of tricks. It is a simple, flexible way to add value to the reader experience; to be directed to commentary by the author at the end of a chapter, to be taken to a website where the reader can buy the next book in the series, to download the accompanying app, or to listen to an audio clip or podcast from the author – or all three. How this would be done is as follows.


Using QR Codes in a book

Let’s say that the publisher is called Acme Books. The end of the first chapter of Acme’s latest bestseller features a QR Code, with some explanatory text inviting the reader to find out more about that particular chapter – why those particular locations were of interest to the author, notable news stories from that era, and the ability to download an app which brings the world of the book to life.

The QR Code would resolve to a short URL.

This short URL can be controlled by Acme Books by a URL shortening service, run internally. It directs to a page about the book: www.acmebooks.com/authorname/bookname/chapter1?=ref=bookqrcode

Note the ‘ref=qrcode’ at the end, which is a tag for Acme’s analytics service, enabling the publisher to know how many people are scanning the QR Codes in its books.

Because the QR Code resolves to a short URL which Acme Books controls, they can repoint www.acbks.to/abc123 to a different target URL when the website is redesigned. This would not be the case if Acme used the QR Code to point directly to its website, or by using a public URL shortener such as Bit.ly. (Perera can provide such an in-house URL shortening service to publishers to cater for this requirement).

When the reader arrives at the page, the website must be mobile-friendly. Note that www.acmebooks.com/authorname/bookname/chapter1?=ref=bookqrcode

isn’t going to a special mobile URL. This is because the reader may wish to look at the ‘desktop’ website if they have a tablet. This works when the website’s content management system is configured to ‘sniff’ the device that the reader is using, and automatically serve them a desktop or mobile version of the site.

Once the reader is on the page, they are presented with a well-presented-but-functional introduction and series of links that carry out the promise of the blurb underneath the original QR Code – linking out to audio, text, and the appropriate app store. Of course, this page can be modified at any time.


QR Codes and ebooks

Because a QR Code is a basic image, it can be used anywhere. But, it doesn’t have to be limited to print alone. 

One of the most effective examples that I have seen where QR Codes can combine a desktop or tablet with a mobile device is Stack Apps, part of the ‘Stack Overflow’ family of geek / tech websites. The mobile apps within the site come with a QR Code, which the user can scan from the screen to be taken to the appropriate page within the device’s app store. It’s simple and there’s a tremendous amount of utility value there. Also, look at the size of the QR Code on the page – you can scan it without having to lean into the screen.

This shows that digital devices can co-exist with QR Codes. So, in the above example of Acme Books, there is no reason as to why the same QR Code would not exist in the e-book version. What’s more, the URL might subtly change to include a different referrer (… tag=kindleqrcode, for example), allowing the publisher to not just know how many scans there are of a book’s QR Code, but precisely which formats are being interacted with the most.


Reaching new readers

Of course, effective QR Code planning is more than about just the book. It can be used as an encouragement to read.

The Catalan Government is working with a number of publishers, starting with Random House, on what it calls the Reading Train project. The central carriage of ten trains feature QR Codes in their interiors, which provide the ability for travellers to download the first chapter of a prominent book for free. It’s a neat idea that, again, provides a lot of utility value: people like a good read on the train, after all. There are some additional environmental considerations: the train needs to have power sockets and wifi for the mobile devices without 3G to be able to download and enjoy the free content. But, it’s a low-cost, high-value way to deliver interesting content to an engaged audience.

All new media take us through a learning process. With a bit of lateral thinking and a focus on what will engage and draw readers in, there’s no reason why QR Codes can’t be part of a strategy to deliver an engaging experience and become the glue between online and print.
Paul Squires is Managing Director of digital agency Perera. For further information, visit pereramedia.com on the web, @pereramedia on Twitter, or scan the QR Code!