Sizing Up Codes, Pics, and Bumps for Mobile Marketing

One of the most interesting things about mobile from a marketing perspective is its ability to activate other channels. My colleague Garrick Schmitt recently posted an article about the advance of QR (quick response) codes in the United States. He smartly notes the difficulty of having to fumble through an entry of a long URL or even texting to receive an SMS with a link. QR codes provide an excellent shortcut. Simply point the camera phone at the code, and done — content received.

He also notes that while QR codes have long been popular in Japan, they’ve only recently gained traction here in the U.S. This is largely due to the launch of Apple’s app store and similar efforts from carriers and other device manufacturers aimed at streamlining the process of downloading and installing software on mobile devices. I fully agree with his prediction: “It’s not hard to imagine a not-too-distant future where QR codes will become the primary bridge connecting real and virtual worlds.”

I’d like to build on this line of thinking by exploring some other technologies that are enabling similar functional possibilities.

Image Recognition

I first heard about image recognition on mobile devices was in 2005, when Neven Vision (since acquired by Google) introduced its iScout functionality to the U.S. market. The basic idea is that a user takes a picture of something and then sends it to Neven’s servers. The image is recognized using Neven Vision technology, and the appropriate content is then pushed back to the user’s mobile device. So, if I’m walking through a mall and I see a poster for a movie that I want to know more about, I simply snap the picture, send it in, and then receive a link to view the complete trailer or other content. Suddenly, any surface and practically any image can become a hyperlink.

Several other companies have since been pursuing this space, including Mobot, FotoLink, and SnapTell, which was recently acquired by Amazon. The last one is particularly interesting given one of the more innovative features of Amazon’s iPhone application: Amazon remembers. You take a picture of a product, and Amazon will do its best to send you product details, customer reviews, and pricing (along with a link to purchase on Amazon). To date, this has been people-powered, but it’s not a big leap to imagine SnapTell powering that feature in the future.

Nokia has also been active in this space, with the Point & Find software currently in beta. A few companies are exploring a hybrid model — a code of some sort that is decoded in the cloud, rather than requiring an application resident on the handset. Jagtag and SpyderLynk are two of the leaders pursuing this model.

So the real question is: Which is better from a marketing perspective? It’s hard to say. Whether code or image recognition, one must consider the delivery mechanism for the consumer. E-mail is no problem for smartphone users, but feature phones are often left to MMS, which can be expensive for the end user.

What about aesthetically? On one hand, image recognition is easier for ad designers — no need to accommodate a big ugly code in the design — just design as you normally would. But how do you make people aware that the image is mobile-active? At least in the near-term, whether you’re using a 2-D bar code or image recognition, you’ll have to dedicate some amount of space to providing instructions to the consumer. One could argue that the code implicitly communicates additional content by itself — indicating by its mere presence that there’s something else going on.

Lastly, one of the key benefits of making a real-world ad mobile-enabled is that it becomes more accountable. Suddenly I can track interactions, and potentially certain kinds of post-click behavior. But to maximize potential, there must be a way to identify the specific media, placement, or ad that triggered the interaction. That’s relatively easy to do with codes, but likely quite tricky with image recognition.

Bumps and Taps

As if it’s not enough that we’ve got codes and pics to consider, there is another way to use mobile to activate the real world: tapping devices together. Nokia was demonstrating a few user scenarios at CES a few years ago, some of which are reflected in this video. The basic idea is that real-world objects become embedded with an RFID (radio frequency ID) tag that NFC-enabled phones can read simply by tapping. So tapping my phone to an ad for an upcoming concert could bring me to a mobile site — or dial a phone number — where I could order tickets. Or I could tap two phones together to share contact information. This scenario has been cleverly implemented on the iPhone by Bump Technologies, using existing networks rather than NFC. The technology obviously holds tremendous potential for mobile payments, which are quite common in Japan but have been slow to make their way to the United States.

Some of the same limitations discussed above apply here from a marketing perspective: Ads featuring this capability still must communicate to the consumer that the ad is mobile-enabled. A standardized NFC-enabled logo may be able to deliver this message to the consumer and show her exactly where to tap. In the near-term, only some mobile handsets will support NFC, limiting your reach. Also, although costs have been steadily falling, RFID likely remains cost-prohibitive for this to get deployed in advertising at scale.

Regardless of what technology delivers on the promise, it is clear that mobile is well on its way to making everything in the real world clickable, and it’s something marketers should already be experimenting with.

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Overhead view of a row of four business people interviewing a young male applicant.