Thursday, March 10, 2011

QR codes: the good, the bad and the ugly

Looking for an easy, trackable way to drive people to your website? Never fear, QR codes are here!

You don't have to be a smartphone user to notice these trendy little marks popping up on everything from magazine ads to outdoor signage. For the uninitiated, these little QR (quick response) codes are just text that can be scanned into a smartphone using one of the many available QR reader apps. The text may be a sentence, an e-mail address, or (most often) a Web page, and readers will often open the links into a Web browser.

While I'm still using a dumbphone, I'm jumping into this trend head-on for our print advertising and direct mail pieces. As much as we want people to visit our website, it makes sense to make this process easier. We have yet to know whether this is a temporary fad or the start of a lasting bridge between the print and online world, but the cost is minimal enough to make this worth a try.

Smartphones aren't necessary to generate these codes, and you don't need to pay a dime to generate codes with analytics. They are ugly, but as long as you keep some of the contrast, you can spruce up the look slightly in Photoshop. So how do you get started?
  • Set up a free account with a URL shortening service that offers QR codes and analytics. Right now, bit.ly and goo.gl both include QR code generation for all shortened links, and they also track clicks. Accounts for both of these services are free, and I wouldn't be surprised if market pressure leads similar services to follow suit in the near future.
  • Make sure your site is (at least moderately) friendly for mobile devices. If a huge portion of your website is Flash-driven, you'll want to phase that out before driving mobile users to it. Smartphone users will expect that the sites they're going to have been created just for them, so don't violate this expectation by making it incompatible with their phones.
  • Focus on function, then form. Designing around these codes can be tough. They're not inherently attractive, and they need to be at least .75" square in size to work. Test them out *every* time you use them, just like you should for a regular Web address. The more phones you can test on your first few designs, the better. Once you know the original code works, then you can experiment with color variations (then test them again).
Happy coding!

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Marketing to those who hate marketing: Bling

A professor showed me a clever piece the other day with a simple diagonal die-cut that was accordion-folded for five panels, creating an attractive and interesting zig-zag effect. He hated it.

"Too showy, not serious enough," he described. He saved it as an example of what not to do when targeting faculty.

Tip #2: Forget the bells and whistles. For every person who gives a "wow—that's cool" reaction to an interesting publication shape or feature, you're likely to get two or more who respond with "wow—what a waste of tuition dollars." Depending on the purpose of the piece and your audience, some things can stand out in the mail for all the wrong reasons. Lenticular printing, die cuts, giveaways and other tactics may help distinguish a direct mail piece, but in a time when IHE budgets are being tightened nationwide, budget-conscious recipients may discount your institution's fiscal responsibility.

Solid message development and creative design doesn't require printed bling to be effective. Even if you've got the budget for such tactics, spending those funds on other applications is likely to give you much more bang for the buck.
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