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Why the Best Online Marketing May Be Headed Offline

Hamilton Chan is CEO of Paperlinks and Paperspring. Through its iPhone app and QR web platform, the just-launched Paperlinks platform makes context-sensitive marketing plug-and-play for small, medium and large businesses.

The hyperlink is the fundamental building block of the Internet, and effectively ties reference points to useful content. Without the hyperlink, the web would be nothing more than silos of content lacking semantic connections.

Traditionally, hyperlinks live in browser windows on desktop monitors. Today, however, some hyperlinks are moving offline, where they can be “clicked” by people roaming the real world.

By printing a Quick Response (QR) bar code on any item — a lamp, the program booklet of an event, or a retail store window -– a consumer can quickly link from the real-world experience to rich web content via his smartphone. Using QR codes, jump points to the Internet can be placed anywhere in the physical world.

The ability to place a QR code on anything offers opportunities for businesses and consumers. These are a few examples of how a business can leverage QR codes and turn real-world “clicks” into sales:

  • You have been looking for the perfect lamp for your living room for a long time. You see the perfect one — not in a furniture show room, but in a hotel lobby. At the base of a lamp is a QR code. You scan it with your phone, click a link to “buy it now,” and purchase the lamp on the spot.
  • You drive across town to purchase a leather jacket from a fashion boutique. By the time you arrive, the store is closed. A retail window badge reads: “Sorry, we’re closed! Scan this code to buy online, and receive free shipping!” The free shipping offer is normally not available online, but since you made the trek, the store offers you a reward.
  • You attend a musical and have a great time. Reviewing the Playbill at home, you encounter a QR code that you can scan to order tickets for the next musical at the venue. The tickets are offered at 40% off, and the offer is only good for seven days. With the offer laid perfectly in front of you, and positive memories of tonight’s musical fresh in your mind, you purchase the tickets.

Context-Sensitive Marketing

These examples illustrate the power of a new opportunity created by QR codes that we call context-sensitive marketing, or CSM.

Remember those impulse items in the supermarket checkout aisle? The savvy merchant, knowing you are likely to be hungry while food shopping, shows you quick fixes like a candy bar. CSM enables the same type of impulse buying, only this time, it’s “virtual impulse buying.” The idea behind CSM is to reach your customers when they are most likely to be interested in your product. With the knowledge of what context you’re in –- staring at furniture, attending a musical, or shopping for clothes — the ability to engage in virtual impulse buying is literally at your fingertips.

From the consumer’s standpoint, CSM is a convenience. Scanning a QR code is a deliberate act the consumer is choosing to take part in. On the other hand, GPS-triggered smartphone pop-ups are not part of the CSM playbook, because the consumer never opts-in (or out) of the content.

In addition to purchasing convenience, a real-world hyperlink can trigger multimedia or crowdsourced wisdom that can help you in a pinch. Imagine, for example, needing to re-thread the belts on a child’s car seat, but not having the manual in front of you to show you how. There is no need to Google the product or scavenge through your file cabinet for the manual; just scan the QR code and have the manual or a how-to video appear right on your phone.

Is the Real World Ready for Contextual Links?

QR Code Image

All of this technology may sound great, but is the world ready for QR codes? Changing consumer behavior is notoriously difficult. Will consumers find scanning items with their smartphones to be a natural and useful act?

Technologically, the convergence of three trends are equipping consumers with the tools to make QR code scanning seamless:

  • The growth of wireless data transmissions through 3G+ and Wi-Fi;
  • The ubiquity of Internet-connected mobile mini-computers, a.k.a. smartphones (equipped with GPS and high-definition cameras); and
  • The emergence of data storage in the Internet cloud.

According to Nielsen, 51% of all Americans will be carrying smartphones by 2011. The number of QR codes in circulation is reported to increase significantly. QR reading apps are quick to launch, quick to scan and available on every smartphone operating system.

Behaviorally, the mass adoption of QR codes will depend most critically on the utility of what is behind the QR code. Businesses need to provide scan-worthy content that truly makes the lives of consumers better after taking the time — however short — to scan a QR code. To this end, businesses simply need to be creative. Provide a special offer to incentivize the scan or save time for the consumer by providing context-triggered helping hands.

As a final example, imagine discovering that the water dispenser on your home fridge isn’t working. You open the fridge and see the indicator light informing you that your water filter cartridge needs replacing. What do you do? Will you fire up your laptop and type into a Google search box the exact model of your water filter cartridge replacement, then hunt for the best deal online? That’s what I did last year. But with any luck, next time around, a QR code will be printed on the water filter with the prompt: “Scan me to reorder.” Grabbing my phone, I scan the code, pulling up a 15% manufacturer’s discount if I order the cartridge directly. I click to buy, knowing I saved time and money, which I can now spend on more worthwhile activities.

That is the power of context-sensitive marketing.

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