QR Code Images Providing Paths To Video And Web Messaging

June 1, 2011       Mark Hrywna      

When the Milwaukee Chamber Theatre (MCT) announced its 2011-12 season, the 20-page program brochure obviously focused heavily on the five plays to be featured.

There was a black and white square in the lower right corner of some pages. It almost looks like a miniature Rorschach test. But scan the 1×1-inch image with a smartphone and it takes you to a YouTube video featuring MCT artistic director C. Michael Wright discussing the upcoming shows.

The QR (which stands for Quick Response) codes are similar to bar codes you might find on products. But download a QR reader application on your smartphone and you’re ready to scan codes that can direct you to a specific web page.

As QR coding pops up more often in print and billboard advertising by commercial entities, nonprofits are slowly experimenting with it. At its annual Nonprofit Technology Conference this past spring, the Portland, Ore.-based National Technology Network (NTEN) put QR codes on name badges which linked to the person’s attendee profile online.

Less than two minutes long, the videos by MCT aim to give people a more personal experience with the theater, said Cara McMullin, marketing director. “Video can be so much more effective to passionately convey why the show is worth it,” McMullin said, adding that once dress rehearsals begin, the links might be updated to incorporate video of show previews.

MCT mailed new program brochures in early April so it’s too early to tell how many people linked to the videos via QR code. The MCT plans to continue experimenting with QR codes, incorporating them into postcards for each show, as well as on large kiosk posters. All of the activity coming through QR codes is trackable, telling the organization where and how people are getting to their web page.

With a primarily older demographic among its patrons, MCT hopes it can reach some young audiences through use of QR codes as smartphones become more prevalent. “We’re definitely hoping it peaks interest in new patrons, or those that have only been here a couple of times,” McMullin said.

“One of the things we noticed in attending shows and observing arts ourselves, there’s a real disconnect between the live production and the audience. We can see the movie trailer on TV but we can’t see a trailer of a theatrical production we’re spending much more money on,” said Bill Finn, president and CEO of Finn Digital, a Milwaukee-based firm that worked with MCT.

The Children’s Museum of Richmond started a pilot program this spring with three QR codes at its most popular exhibits. The process will be refined before expanding this summer to all exhibits at both locations of the Richmond, Va., facility. The QR codes will direct parents to a video on their smart phone, describing the educational significance of their child’s activity and giving them suggestions for ways to extend learning beyond the museum, said Jennifer Boyle, Director of Education.

The use of QR codes is growing rapidly with the growth of mobile technology, Finn said, though at the same time, not everyone has Internet connectivity. The number of people who are comfortable with, or even own, smartphones goes down the older the demographic, so that’s the challenge for any arts organization with an aging audience, said Finn.

Finn would be delighted if out of a couple thousand brochures mailed, there were 100 scans. “Sometimes it takes time,” he said, adding that if nonprofits can offer an experience other than just landing on a home page, they should find success. QR codes are “only one channel out of an integrated communications marketing effort but it’s one of the more measurable channels,” Finn said.

Though not many nonprofits have used them for fundraising yet, QR codes can be more flexible than giving by text message, where donors are locked into a low-dollar gift and cannot share personal information with a nonprofit. A QR code can direct donors to a standard online donation page.

New York Public Library (NYPL) has discussed using QR codes for fundraising but hasn’t done it yet. “It’s a matter of time…it has to be for the right audience for the right initiative, with the right kind of messaging you want to put out there,” said Deanna Lee, vice president for communications and marketing at NYPL.

The library first experimented with QR codes at an event in fall 2009 when it launched its new lion logo for the design community. About a half-dozen stations around the room displayed the new logo along with posters each featuring a different QR code, some with multimedia presentations others with text or video. At one station, scanning the barcode might send a user to a Flash video detailing the evolution of the new logo, from its first sketches to finished product. Another showed off the different uses of the new logo, whether on stationary or on a tote bag.

“It gave the evening a feeling of discovery,” said Lee. “Ultimately, they’re about giving information, that’s a big part of what we’re trying to do: Show people that we’re not just about books, but information,” she said.

Lee was pleased with how people were intrigued by the codes, “and that’s the essence of marketing,” she added.

“I wouldn’t call it a big part of the final product but it enters almost every discussion,” Lee said of QR codes. It comes down to a question of space and messaging, whether the audience is more suited for posting a website address or hashtag instead of a QR code, she added.

For traditional ads on telephone kiosks in Midtown, she’s more likely to use something with words, like a hashtag, the # symbol used to mark keywords or topics in a tweet on Twitter, or a specific URL web address.

If it’s for posters to be used downtown, she’s more likely to go with QR codes because that demographic is more inclined to scan them.

Lee hopes the QR code eventually can be designed to be more flexible and more interesting than just a black-and-white square, but it’s still up to marketing staff to do their jobs and interest people. “Potentially, it’s an easy way to reach more and more people,” said Lee, because you present a multitude of information to someone with the click of their phone. “A code isn’t going to solve everything, we in marketing still have to grab their attention. We have to do that first storytelling grab,” said Lee.

Some 500 players were slated to spend the night of May 20 in the library to play “Find the Future.” The interactive game relies on QR codes to enhance the storytelling experience as players go on a quest to find artifacts. The 100-year-old library aims to cater to different audiences, which means using marketing tools to reach those various demographics. “That’s constantly part of the discussion,” said Lee.

“Those are the kinds of challenges people have. It’s great that you can point to all that information but you’re giving up actual words,” Lee said. A QR code is great for a person who can use their smartphone to scan the code, she said, but marketers must also consider the person who passes an ad while riding the bus.

City Harvest tried QR codes for the first time this past fall, incorporating them into advertisements. When the code was scanned, users had a choice of watching a video about City Harvest, reading a fact sheet, going to its website or donating by phone.

The ads debuted during City Harvest’s peak season (October to January) and generated more than 200 views, according to Heather Wallace, director of marketing at Manhattan-based City Harvest. “In New York, people live on their smartphones, so the ability to connect, even if they just go to the web, just made sense,” she said.

City Harvest might include a code decal at one of its food partners, to tell the story of how much they donate and how long they’ve been involved with the nonprofit, to cross promote with its partners. “Bar codes are a great engagement tool and a great way to promote our partners in the food industry that are so good to us,” said Wallace. “And it’s important for nonprofits to test, to be on the forefront, especially with technology but you have to balance your return versus how much time you’re putting in,” she said. NPT

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