The True Cost of Free
There is no doubt that the use of QR codes is growing exponentially. In the US, the usage charts now resemble the hockey stick that commentators love to reference. And things are moving fast here in Europe too. Just a single one of the London commuter papers, the Metro, for example, carried 10 times as many codes in September as they did in April – up from 25 to 250.
One of the reasons why codes are taking off is that marketers are beginning to realise how easy it is to create and use them - indeed, there are plenty of QR code generators available on the web and within app stores. They even include a variety of free ones.
So why, when there is a “perfectly good” free service that enables you to generate a code and start using it virtually straightaway, does it actually make sense for marketers to pay for a QR code service? Simply put – it is about functionality, flexibility, future-planning, and protecting your reputation.
The free-to-create QR codes exist to do the one thing that was programmed into them at their creation. That might be to download a phone number or SMS message. More likely, it is to direct a mobile phone to a URL. But once that code is created, it is fixed for all time to do that one simple function. It has no management features, very little in the way of data capture, often limited intelligence and analytics and - crucially - absolutely no re-use.
If you are simply testing the water with a first-up QR code campaign, I can see that, despite these drawbacks, a free code has some attraction. But to really give a QR-code based marketing campaign a fair shot, a managed code platform is the way forward - especially if you believe your campaign can evolve and grow over time.
The Mobile Marketing Association (MMA) recently published a best practice Whitepaper guide to using mobile barcodes, and laid down some guidelines to use when selecting a barcode service provider. The Whitepaper makes the point that a comprehensive solution should include a mobile application, a code management platform, and advanced analytical capabilities.
Managed QR code platforms and systems work entirely differently from the one-time codes. With a managed system, one code can perform multiple tasks. For example, a code in a retail store can differentiate between first-time scanners and returning customers.
The same code could therefore offer up a registration function if it is the first time you have scanned it, or accurately-targeted coupons based on your preferences, if you are already logged in the system. A managed code can also differentiate on the type of phone you have when you scan it, and route you to the appropriate application store to download the software that works on your phone.
In campaign terms, this means that managed codes live forever and change with the times, whereas the one-time codes have a limited life. I have scanned a printed code that has taken me to a dead-end on a web site, or to a competition that had long-since closed, or downloaded a telephone number that was now out of service.
And there is another point - unless the marketing team stays right on top of the situation and maintains campaign websites well after the promotion has ended, there is a risk of annoying and alienating customers. With a managed code, you simply redirect that scanned traffic to your next promotion, and explain to the customers what you are doing.
The MMA’s Whitepaper makes this very point, and highlights that when planning a barcode campaign, you should ask yourself whether you have the internal resources to properly manage the campaign, or whether it makes more sense to outsource, and ensure that you are using a managed code platform.
With a managed barcode, the service provider can afford to build out a reliable and secure network for processing the traffic generated by popular campaigns, which can easily number in the hundreds of thousands of scans. They can offer an appropriate service level agreement; live personnel to help with problems and resolution; and consulting services to tailor campaigns, based on proven best practices they’ve supported already. They can also give you developer toolkits and access to APIs to help you own and integrate the campaign within your own marketing and brand. When it comes to service and support like that, you get what you pay for with free codes - none of the above.
Another issue with one-time code generators is that they tend to deliver the one-size-fits-all code - a one-inch square. This is fine for most uses, but it you want to embed a long URL into the code to take someone deep into your website or provide a Google map link, the code becomes too dense for the space, and is virtually unreadable. A managed code provider can ensure that a readable, one-inch square code, can always be generated. Finally, although some free codes provide some decent analytics, managed codes can go so much further and give you reams of data, cut whichever way you want and presented how you want.
Managed codes can tell you so much more about your customers. Where they are, what phone they were using, what time of day they scanned, how many times have they scanned codes before, if the scan took them to a promotional site what they did then - enter a competition or make a purchase for example.
Beyond the statistics, you gather real-time insights about your customers: who is buying, when they are buying, and whether they have bought from you before. This helps determine return on investment on your campaigns, enables you to better target your promotions, and also maximise your marketing spend going forward.
So while there is only one strong reason to use a free code generator - it is free - there are a whole host of strong reasons to use a managed service. These include better planning, greater flexibility, more functionality, more reliable and more accurate codes, and greater customer insight.
And as QR codes are fast becoming the most popular way for advertisers and marketers to interact directly with consumers – those seems like a pretty powerful argument.
Dave Marutiak is managing director of Scanbuy UK