USA Today is looking to make an old idea new again, using smart phone-friendly barcodes to connect newspaper readers to digital content that will enhance their reading experience.

Microsoft Tags
An explainer for USA Today's barcode programs appeared above the index in the paper last week.

The paper announced last week it would begin using Microsoft Tags, a free but proprietary barcode system, to provide mobile users easy access to online videos, photo galleries, and other online materials.

Reading a Tag requires the installation of a free mobile app, a step most smart phone users now take in stride.

“Even three years ago,” Jason Fulmines said, “downloading an app was a foreign concept.” Now, it is a common practice.

Chet Czarniak, the paper’s executive editor for content distribution and programming, agreed saying content is the key to consumer adoption. “Whatever you do, the user has to figure there is some value there,” or else they won’t use it.

And according to Czarniak, figuring out what readers value is one of the goals of the project. He noted that the paper plans to use at least one Tag per section each day, and is closely monitoring usage.

To Fulmines, who is director of mobile products for Gannett, that monitoring is key. They need to “know what is striking a chord,” he said, in order to enhance or adjust the strategy.

Metrics are also one reason the paper chose Microsoft’s solution over similar, open source options that are more widely used. Another "2D” barcode variant, QR codes, have gained some popular support from online services including Google, which uses the codes to link users to apps in the Android Marketplace.

Fulmines said the open-source question was an issue they wrestled with, but Microsoft's solution provided some key features.

He explained that USA Today codes require the use of Microsoft’s TagReader app, which assures comprehensive tracking of user interactions. If the paper had chosen to use the standard QR code system, users could have chosen from a variety of mobile apps, making tracking difficult.

Some have also criticized Microsoft for creating “indirect” links via its Tags. Unlike QR codes that contain a complete representation of a final Web URL, Tags instead link to Microsoft’s servers that then direct the reader to the intended destination. This is similar to the issue facing users of TinyURL or links. If either of those companies shut down its servers, millions of Web links would stop working.

However, Fulmines said, assuming Microsoft continues to support the product, this is actually an advantage of Tags. By using indirect links “we can change the URLs the code represents on the fly.” A link pointing to a photo gallery in the morning can be redirected to a news video on the same topic in the afternoon, for instance.

Another advantage for USA Today is that Microsoft’s Tags are slightly smaller, and can be created in either color or black and white. For a paper known for its use of color, Fulmines said, “that was not a trivial” feature.

Czarniak said the newsroom is starting out slowly with the Tags and is still adjusting to the new processes involved with the system. For example, since Tags are not human-readable, the copy desk uses a cell phone to fact-check each code to assure it is linking to the correct content.

USA Today is not the only publication to be using barcodes to connect print and digital content. But, the practice is not nearly as common in the U.S. as it is elsewhere.

Amy Webb, the CEO of Webbmedia Group in Baltimore, told me by e-mail last week that 2D barcodes are very popular in Europe and Asia, but are starting to attract the interest of U.S. publishers and consumers as well.

People do “love to scan stuff with their mobile phones,” she said. But the key is making the experience easy and the content meaningful for the audience.

She pointed to the South Florida Sun Sentinel as an example of a successful barcode strategy. Similar to USA Today’s early approach to the technology, the Sun Sentinel is linking their codes to digital assets such as news video.

And Webb suggests that simple is often better. “If a story is about a helicopter making some kind of crazy landing, the average user is going to hop on her mobile to do a search for the video.” She argues that a successful strategy will use the power of the mobile phone in similarly intuitive ways for the reader.

The appearance of barcodes in the paper this week may bring back memories of the CueCat folly 11 years ago, but Fulmines argues that times have changed.

The CueCat, a personal barcode reader, was launched in 2000 and used by publications including Wired, Parade and the Dallas Morning News to link print readers to online content. The device connected to a personal computer and deciphered printed 2D barcodes.

The device is largely viewed as a failure, tarnishing efforts by publishers ever since to test similar efforts in the U.S. market.

But Fulmines, the director of mobile products at Gannett thinks smart phones and mobile apps may make the difference this time.