Mashable proclaims that QR codes are poised to hit the mainstream. So what’s a theater to do?

First, what are QR codes? QR = Quick Response. They are square bar codes packed with more dense information than the traditional bar code you recognize, and are most often linked to a website. If you have a barcode scanner app installed on your smartphone, with the click of your camera, these codes will automatically open your web browser to the linked website. Still confused?

Take a picture of this code with a QR reader app on your mobile phone, and it will lead you back to the 2amt front page on your phone. Go ahead, try it. We’ll wait.

They’ve been in use in Japan for more than a decade, but have only recently gained steam stateside. A few weeks ago, Devon spotted one on the N train in NYC on a poster for the Freelancer’s Union.

In theory, a QR code saves you time from having to type in the numbers and letters of a website address. As we spend more of our time glued to mobile phones (with sometimes difficult to maneuver keyboard touch screens), this is no small feat. It also provides a bit more mystery for the user. If I can read your website address, I probably have a pretty good idea about the content I’m going to find there. If your website is called, I don’t expect to find a video of a lion or a discount ticket to the Lion King there. If instead I’m taking a photo of a square with a bunch of black dots, I have absolutely no idea what kind of website is going to appear in my browser. This sense of secrecy can be a valuable motivator for action.

Why should an organization use this?

If you plaster a QR code on a bus shelter poster, a magazine ad, or a post card, and provide the user with something useful, say a discounted ticket or a secret behind-the-scenes video, on a unique landing page, you can exactly track its impact.

(You know those annoying commercials with Ben Stein? Yes, they use different URLS on different stations and different times. For example, That’s just another way of them tracking which commercials are making the most impact. Let’s say might have gotten a lot of traffic, but had more conversions.)

Why should a patron scan this?

Mashable agreeably writes that one of the most important questions is “why should I scan this?”

And they’re right. Why should you? If it’s just to get a link to your homepage, why should they fire up an app rather than typing in The challenge is to make the QR code worth the five-second-firing-up-the-scanner-app effort. You have to provide the scanner with something unique. Something worthwhile.

So how are people using them?

  • At conferences, instead of handing out business cards, snap a pic of someone’s name badge for all of their key details, all conveniently imported directly to your address book.
  • At museums, libraries, and grocery stores, to provide more in-depth coverage of many different items, all in close proximity.
  • On bus stops, when you routinely need time-dependent information. Or on pieces of mail, when you routinely need location-dependent information.
  • On billboards or TV commercials when you might have only a few seconds to grab the information.
  • On posters, to simplify the “click stream” of the information you’re trying to find (compare the ease of snapping a photo, with the complex instructions on the right)
  • To highlight the history of a particular object or location
  • On signage, to be language-agnostic/foreigner-friendly
  • On buildings and real estate signs, for more information about the property
  • As art (via graffiti, gardening, and yes Travis, even cupcakes)

And, scavenger hunting

Try this code. It will lead you back to on your phone. You can create a custom QR code for your event pages at Talkbackr now.

Back in January, Devon wrote a post on a Foursquare scavenger hunt. Unlock enough badges themed to a production and users win free tickets to a show.  Foursquare just hit 100 million check-ins. Location-based apps are getting big. And QR codes can and will play into this trend.

A couple of months after Devon’s post, Marc commented on the site: “what if we can combine this Foursquare scavenger hunt with QR codes? Make it some kind of ‘National Treasure’ or ‘Amazing Race’ type of deal. Hide some QR code in locations where people need to check in with Foursquare. Each QR code then has a clue for the next location. The last location could hold some final clue that you need to text or call in to receive some kind of major prize…”

Now, The Boston Globe and the Smithsonian Institution have already built scavenger hunts. They used a new app on the scene, SCVNGR. Where the simplicity of Foursquare is just checking in to a location, SCVNGR allows you to instigate challenges, do an activity, solve a riddle, or, as you guessed it, scan a QR code.  SCVNGR encourages you to build your own “treks.” The app is free, so anyone with an iPhone or Android-powered phone (2.1 and above) can participate. They offer a handy style guide to building a trek.

Although you can have your scavenger hunters follow a particular path and order, realize that all locations are known in advance. At each location, the hunters will do a task: answer a quiz question, scan a QR code, take a photo, you name it. Each completed task comes with points, and people can compete with their friends.

Think of a collaborative Chicago storefront theater scavenger hunt, perhaps sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, or an Austin theater/ bike scavenger hunt sponsored by the Bicycle Sport Shop. Rather than one organization trying to pull this off, reach out to your entire network for support. Consider weaving the story of your production into the story of the hunt.

The Logistics of QR codes

You’re going to need to create the QR code:

  • Kaywa is dead simple
  • Goog.le allows you append .qr to any Google short link
  • Stickybits, while still a traditional barcode, simplifies the process to a $10 book of stickers

Then you need to be able to “read” the QR code:

  • Most Android and Blackberry phones have the functionality built in
  • Popular apps for iPhone users are i-nigma and QuickMark

And you’ll want to consider the type of content you’re encoding. There’s a limit to the number of characters or bits per square inch of QR code, but could include a URL (and therefore any manner of multi-media posted online), email address, telephone number, vCard contact information, geo-tag coordinates, iCal invitation, or just about anything else you could capture in under roughly 5,000 alpha-numeric characters—even the text to a postcard play.

More mobile marketing

Augmented Reality apps offer another innovative approach to mobile marketing.

One well-known app is Layar. Here’s a great video of augmented reality at a music festival. Marc would love to see the Chicago History Museum recreate the Columbian Exposition in augmented reality… imagine staring through your phone at the White City, circa 1900!

Google Goggles is another AR app. It’s basically visual search; take a photo with your camera and Google does a search for it, whether it be a product, logo, landmark, or building.

The Future of QR Codes

Don’t get us wrong, QR codes are not mainstream. But now that you know what they are, you’ll likely start to notice them in your neighborhood. QR codes are a high tech bit of gadgetry with a very low cost of implementation. While they currently appeal to a small subset of the population, it’s not hard to imagine that five years from now they will be embedded in our daily life. Why bother with all that typing when all you have to do is snap a photo. Why not append digital information to a physical object. Why not impress your audience with a bit of futuristic wizardry.

  • September 8, 2010
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