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"The humorous prose is colorful and makes the material a fun read... This is very "visual" reading, and is much enjoyed and appreciated. The analysis is spot on, and expertly worded... It’s a winner. We need more of this colorful kind of writing about technical things." – Smashing Magazine reviewer

Don’t Put a QR Code on Your Business Card

… until you read this 7th installment of my QR Code Secrets Series.

Last time we discussed how to drive social traffic to your business. This week, I will show the best practices for using QR Codes for personal and social.

I had a QR code on my business card for years, and studied how to engage people after the initial QR Code scan, and how to drive tangible value. Here I will reveal everything I learned about using QR Codes for personal and social connection, including using special formats like MECARD, and the secrets of linking to Twitter, LinkedIn, blog posts and custom landing pages.

BTW, if you are serious about getting the most value out of your QR Code campaign, be sure to check out the recording of my virtual seminar, QR Codes That Convert: Mobile UX Strategies for Success.

The Networking Dance

To my knowledge, a popular conference SXSW has been the first major conference to put barcodes on conference badges to identify the individual attendees. Recently I saw the same QR Code device being used at the Intel computing Summit in New Orleans.  This trend is of course part of the larger movement to extend the physical connection into the virtual space during and after the initial encounter.

From what I observed, after the novelty has worn off to some extend, people tend to connect as they usually do and network in the same way they always did. However, if a certain level of connection has been made, people tend to scan each other’s bar codes, in the same way the business cards are currently exchanged, that is usually right before the end of the interaction. As in the business card exchange, one person’s action of scanning the barcode is usually reciprocated by the other, so unspoken physical information exchange “rules” translate nicely to the virtual connection space.

One way the QR Codes differ from the typical business cards exchange, is that by scanning the QR Code, one can get all sorts of meta-information about the person they just encountered including Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn profile and recommendations, and their personal or professional website.

This makes it very easy to connect and follow-up virtually almost immediately after the physical encounter. However, I have personally not noticed any difference in the speed of the follow-up before or after the barcode.  This would anecdotally suggest that

while QR Code may increase the convenience of following up, convenience alone is not enough impetus for following up.  As with any QR Code scan, additional tangible value is needed to create action.

How do you provide this value?

I give you a couple of ideas at the end of this article. But first, let’s talk more about the impact of convenience.

The World of Convenience is not Enough

I bet you knew that QR Codes can be used to encode URLs. But did you also know that they can be used to encode phone numbers, SMS messages, text and a wide variety of other special-purpose formats?

One of these formats, MECARD speed up data entry and offering the ultimate in convenience. Unfortunately, convenience is not enough to warrant the most important thing we are after: the engagement after the scan.

MECARD

One of the most potentially useful formats for our current discussion is MECARD.  MECARD allows you to encode standard business card information along with its meta-data, so that recipient device can understand information such as first and last name, phone number, cell number, email, homepage and the like.

I had the experience of having a MECARD QR Code on the back of my business card for several years. When scanned with a RedLaser or similar scanner on Android and iOS, the information that is revealed is the Contact record that is ready to be added to your Contacts application on the phone. This is a huge improvement over having to type in all of the information all over again.  However, despite the convenience, I noticed no difference in the QR code driving increased engagement after the encounter.

The value one gets from scanning the MECARD QR Code is limited to convenience only. And while convenience may be enough to warrant a scan, convenience alone is not enough to engage your conversation partner.

A word of caution: I found that while many readers will scan MECARD successfully, certain types of readers and “dumber” devices such as older Blackberry phones will not scan the code correctly or will not know what to do with a MECARD tag, displaying it as XML text. Not the best experience.

Another disadvantage to using MECARD QR Code is that it makes tracking problematic, so you have no idea how many people actually scanned your QR Code. (I discussed the importance of tracking QR Code scans previously) Internet browsers do not understand the MECARD tag, so you can’t for example encode a URL that redirects to a MECARD. MECARD has to be the primary payload of the QR Code itself, to be read and interpreted by the QR Code reader, not the browser. Keep that in mind if you do decide to use the MECARD.

CardMunch

Speaking of convenience, LinkedIn just came out with a fantastic mobile app called CardMunch. If you don’t already use it, download it now.  Just like MECARD, CardMunch allows you to translate any business card into a Contacts record and a LinkedIn connection.

All you have to do is take a picture of the business card with your phone. The CardMunch app does the rest. CardMunch sends the image to the server where it is decoded using a combination of OCR (Optical Character Recognition) and Mechanical Turk, having multiple people physically reading and transcribing the writing on the card. The service is surprisingly excellent. And free. This is another argument against using MECARD or other special formats and instead use a URL to drive real value with every scan of your QR Code.

When we meet someone in person, we are looking to make a connection, to engage. Simply exchanging information, no matter how convenient you make it, will not drive that engagement after the meeting. You have to provide value – whether with a URL, phone number, follow-up activity or sending a message chiseled on a stone pyramid. The format does not matter, value does. Scanning the QR Code just happens to be more convenient than sending a carrier pigeon (with the cost of real estate for cages and pigeon feed being what it is now a days.)

Value, One Person at a Time

How does one provide value with a QR code that is meant to be scanned during or right after a personal encounter?

That’s a very personal question and your unique value proposition must be a very important part of your personal QR Code strategy.  Below are a couple of ideas.

Twitter

Put a QR Code and a short link URL on the back of your card that points to Twitter. This is usually the easiest way to engage after the initial contact. If you send out useful bits of data, keep up with trends or have unique micro blogging offerings, especially if you plan to do some coverage of the topic related to the event. Don’t bother with this if your Twitter stream consists mostly of pictures of your breakfast, unless you are trying to drive value for the members of the Association of Food Journalists.

The advantage of using Twitter is that you can completely customize the page the person will see with just a few tweets and make it very relevant to the event where you me the person. Thus you can use full disclosure and tell people exactly where the QR Code will take them on or near the QR Code itself. This makes it more likely that they will scan and possibly engage with you, provided the personal encounter itself was interesting.

LinkedIn

LinkedIn is the staple of the professional associations, so this would appear to be an obvious choice to point people to your profile there. However, it is of limited value to the person doing the scan beyond simply connecting (as we discussed above). CardMunch app will do this for you without bothering with the scan.  LinkedIn is a given – a baseline. Thus I personally don’t recommend it.

Your Blog’s Homepage

This is a good option, if you can ensure that the information displayed there is relevant to the person doing the scan. If you update your blog often, and have interesting things to say that’s a pretty good option. In this case, definitely write down where the QR code will go and what to expect.

Article, Blog Post or Whitepaper

If you have a favorite article or something of note that might be useful to the event attendees, a good option is to point them to a specific article or blog post on your site. In this case, you may want to say something more general next to the QR Code and change where the shortcut tracking URL within the QR Code is pointing, depending on the event you are attending. Anecdotal evidence points to most QR codes being scanned either immediately or within a few days after the event, so don’t worry about changing the destination URL to another article a week later (to fit a different event for example).

This strategy also has the advantage of being able to tell the people you meet in person where the QR Code will take them, and that it will only work for a limited time, thus introducing a sense of urgency – always a good thing when it comes to driving positive action.

One disadvantage is that it is not clear what action should occur after the person scans the QR Code and reads the post. What do you want them to do? Subscribe to your blog? Offer you a job? The call to action should be clear. However, unless you are using a special custom blog template, that may also be hard to implement on the individual blog post, which brings us to my next recommendation:

Custom Landing Page

This is the Cadillac of QR Code experiences, and my personal favorite approach.  First, you create a virtual URL, such as http://www.designCaffeine.com/qr/

And the QR Code that points to that URL:

Then you redirect the URL as needed to an event-specific landing page.

Tracking
Custom landing page approach has several important advantages. Because the only “reasonable” way to get to that virtual redirect URL is to scan the QR Code, this method makes it easy to track the scans using Google Analytics or similar tool.

Custom Call to Action
With this method, you create a custom page with a clear call to action and supplementary materials relevant to the event. More importantly, you retain the ability to change the page as needed to fit the timeline and needs of a particular event. For example, I gave a presentation recently at the IA Summit 2012 in New Orleans on designing cross-channel mobile and tablet experiences.  Before the presentation, I might point people to a special landing page that talks more about the presentation, such as time and place: http://www.designcaffeine.com/workshops/ia-summit-march-21-25-2012-new-orleans-louisiana/

With a call to action to add to their calendar.

After the presentation, I might change the call to action to point them to the page that allows the download of my slides as a PDF.  And maybe add a sign-up feature that requires people to register for my newsletter before they can obtain the slides. Thus the content on the page and call to action will evolve along with your timeline – allowing you complete freedom to customize the QR Code scanner’s experience.

A/B Testing
Not only are you able to customize the page, you may also consider using a plugin that allows http://www.designCaffeine.com/qr/ page to send the reader to two different versions of the same page. This in turn allows you to test quantitatively, which page design converts better.

Future-Proof Experiences

One of the biggest criticisms of QR Codes is that they are not future proof.

I agree.

I consider QR Codes a band-aid solution at best. However, at the moment, it is still the easiest and most reliable way to connect on-line world with the off-line, physical world (otherwise known as “physical reality”).

Once the RFID chips cross the threshold of a couple of cents or less per chip, we can expect a much greater proliferation of the NFC (Near Field Communication) technology to replace the QR Codes as a more convenient means of connecting physical with virtual. Yes, even on business cards and conference badges.  More technologies, perhaps even high-resolution real-time image recognition (or “computer vision”) will then follow in rapid succession, and our connectivity strategies will adopt accordingly.

However, no matter the connection technology, if there is one thing that I learned is that the world of convenience is not enough.

One thing that will remain unchanging even as connection technologies evolve, is the central concept of delivering value.  Whether you do it through a QR Code, carrier pigeon, or by chiseling a URL on a stone tablet, you have to give the person you meet some value in order for them to engage with your on-line offerings.

The strategies I discussed here stood the test of time, and will be just as applicable for the NFC technologies as they are for the QR Codes.

Greg Nudelman

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"The humorous prose is colorful and makes the material a fun read... This is very "visual" reading, and is much enjoyed and appreciated. The analysis is spot on, and expertly worded... It’s a winner. We need more of this colorful kind of writing about technical things."
– Smashing Magazine reviewer

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