August 31, 2011

Walk past a bus shelter, check product packaging, visit a home improvement store and you’ll see Quick Response (QR) codes. They have gone mainstream, as 14 million people scanned a QR code in June, according to a new report from comScore, and it turns out that half of the time they scanned codes in a newspaper or magazine. Newspapers (and some broadcasters) are exploring how they can make good use of these codes to drive traffic from the print product to the Web via mobile devices, and it may be working.

“It’s sort of a no-brainer. We’ve been putting Web refs in [the newspaper] for a long time,” says Cory Haik, deputy editor of universal news at the Washington Post. The advantage with QR codes, Haik says, is that you can actually measure the traffic to the site from QR codes. And they’ve been impressed with the results. “For our readership, we feel really good about it and want to keep offering them.”

Danny Sanchez, online content manager at the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel, says they’ve found QR codes to be more effective than traditional print refers.

As they test and experiment, newsroom editors are starting to learn what works — and what doesn’t.

That’s the good news. The bad news is that what is working at one news organization isn’t necessarily what’s working at another. But editors at six places have some common suggestions for effectively using QR codes to drive traffic to news content.

Stick with QR codes, not variations

There are a number of scannable codes to use: QR codes, Microsoft tags and other proprietary systems. At the Florida Times-Union in Jacksonville, they began using Microsoft’s digital codes.

“I originally started with Microsoft Tag because I thought that solution was more elegant,” said Bill Bortzfield, content manager at, but he didn’t see the response he expected. They switched to the simple — and generic — QR codes. He advises sticking with QR unless you have a specific reason to choose differently.

At the Palm Beach Post, they originally chose proprietary AT&T codes as part of a pilot project. The big advantage was getting demographic information on who scanned the codes — ages, gender, ZIPcode, and geolocation at the time of the scan. Using it requires editors to create an AT&T-specific link, and requires users to download the AT&T code reader. After the pilot, the Post switched to using links with QR codes, which the copy desk can quickly and simply create themselves.

“So far, it doesn’t appear that use is significantly higher,” says Melissa Patterson, then mobile editor at the Palm Beach Post, and now mobile manager for Cox Media Group, “but the copy desk sure likes them better, and the staff is able and willing to create them on their own—a big plus.”

Get the operational details right

If people are interested enough to pull out their phones and scan a code, make sure it works. There are a number of ways scans can go wrong.

Bortzfield says editors creating the codes need to know what websites work well on mobile. Guiding readers to Flash-heavy websites that are unusable on most mobile devices leads to frustration. Pointing to a cluttered page that is difficult to read on mobile devices will also turn off readers. “I know it sounds obvious, but based on how many non-mobile friendly QRs I’ve run into, I don’t believe it is.”

Be sure to provide information on how to use the codes. The Washington Post has a primer post online “that actually gets traffic,” Haik says. Sanchez says whenever space allows, the Sun-Sentinel adds recommendations for specific apps and supplies basic instructions near the QR code.

Sanchez suggests putting production rules in place for the codes, making them no smaller than ¾” x ¾” and keeping them off the fold, “which makes it maddeningly difficult to scan.” Editors at the Sun-Sentinel also provide a standard URL redirect next to the code, for those who can’t or won’t scan it.

Use shortened links in the code, not full links, since simpler codes scan better on more devices.

And as obvious as it may seem, it’s important to do quality control. Create the codes, test them on phones, confirm the links work correctly.

Choose content carefully: QR codes work for photos, video, databases, social sharing

Everyone I spoke with agreed that it was important to make sure the code sends readers to a particular piece of content, whether it’s a photo gallery, an app, a Facebook page or somewhere else. Haik says it’s important to have a “very specific call to action to do something that you can’t do on broadsheet, and wouldn’t get otherwise.” It really needs to help the reader with something, she adds, to make it worth their effort.

Most of these news organizations have had the greatest success driving traffic from QR codes to photo galleries and video.

Sanchez says the biggest response has definitely been galleries, “especially anything that can’t really be reproduced well in the paper.”

Bortzfield seconded that, adding that the Times-Union also occasionally uses QR codes online to drive people to mobile specific content, like the PodRods app for a car blog.

At the Washington Post, Haik says they can’t yet link to photos and video, which are still Flash-based on the website, although that will change soon. But she says her moment of epiphany came some weeks ago when she realized that while Sunday often has the newspaper’s best work, and people are reading longer-form work then, what they can’t do from the paper is share it with someone else. Since then, the Washington Post has been putting QR codes on what she calls “could-be-viral stories” that let readers share them on their Facebook page. A graphic novel on the debt ceiling also carried a code for people to share socially.

In addition, the Post linked to a user-generated content project for Memorial Day that let users add more content. “The form we used rendered beautifully on the iPhone and Droid,” so she got excited about connecting people to more content and developing the story further.

In Orlando, Janel Jacobs, the Sentinel’s community manager for news and business, says in addition to photos and video, they’ve done well with a QR code on the weather page linking to hourly forecasts and with linking to blogs, especially a tech blog.

For the Palm Beach Post, the most successful QR code linked to an interactive quiz that let people take five sample questions from the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test given to 8th grade students. On the flip side, a crowd map using Google Voice didn’t work. Patterson says, in hindsight, that it was too complicated, as was a “tell us about your foreclosure” project that hundreds of people scanned, but few people completed.

Along with photos and video, mobile-friendly databases have driven traffic for the Vancouver Sun, including their “fatabase” which shows how much fat is in each menu item at Lower Mainland restaurants.

Dean Broughton, chief news editor of digital at the Sun, says their most successful database is of public sector salaries, and garnered six million page views overall, many via mobile devices.

QR codes have also been effective at promoting iPhone and Android apps for the Sun-Sentinel. “We see it as an important way to market our mobile offerings, such as our various apps, text alert campaigns and the mobile site,” Sanchez says.

While no one was willing to share exact traffic numbers from QR codes, most people I spoke with said there is a wide range of results, from dozens to hundreds.

Patterson says they did learn a bit about the demographics of their scanners, thanks to the AT&T test.  In West Palm Beach, most used iPhones (82% vs. 14% Android); 59% were male; and, surprisingly, the largest age group was over 55 (42%). Given that this was West Palm, maybe not so surprising. The comScore numbers out late last week show overall QR code users slightly more balanced by gender, though they skew much younger.

Remember the revenue potential

Don’t forget, Sanchez said, to share your experience with codes around the building, since “many advertisers are actively using them or experimenting with them. It can be appealing to an advertiser wanting to do an ad campaign to have folks at your publication who can produce them and explain how they work.”

How are QR codes working for you? I’d love to hear more stories about what is and isn’t working, so please share in comments below or shoot me an email.

Correction: The name of the Cox division where Melissa Patterson works has been corrected to Cox Media Group; the original stated she was at Cox Media.

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Regina McCombs is a faculty member of The Poynter Institute, teaching multimedia, and social and mobile journalism. She was the senior producer for multimedia at…
Regina McCombs

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