Commentary & Analysis
Making Tracks: Signage, QR Codes, and Customer Journey Analytics
QR codes are great for “making print interactive,” but in today’s high-data marketing environment, they also have a more important purpose: making print measurable.
By Richard Romano
Published: June 19, 2017
Quick Response (QR) codes are not a particularly new technology; in their current form, they date from the early 1990s (QR codes were originally developed to track auto parts during manufacturing), but it wasn’t until the mid 2000s that they started appearing on printed materials, and even then they were not widely recognized or understood. When I sold my house in 2010, I added a QR code to my lawn sign that when scanned launched a website that had photos of the interior. My real estate agent at the time looked at me like I had just beamed down from the Enterprise.
Since then, it has become fairly common to see posters and display graphics like this one that feature a QR code that, in the case of real estate signage, launches a virtual tour of the property.
Again, this is nothing particularly new (indeed, this sign has been up for about four years).
One of my favorite examples of QR codes added to display graphics was (and may still be) a corridor in Chicago’s Midway Airport that connects the terminal to the CTA station. The Adler Planetarium had installed a series of astronomy posters that featured a QR code (in this case Microsoft Tag) that, when scanned, launched rich media or other complementary and supplementary information about a particular planet, star cluster, galaxy, and so on. It was almost enough to make one want to dwell in Midway Airport—a remarkable technology indeed.
QR codes—and, by extension Augmented Reality (AR), with which QR is often grouped—have become ways of “making print interactive,” but there is a far more important reason to use QR/AR on printed materials, be they wide-format display graphics or small-format commercial print applications like brochures or direct mail: they make print measurable.
There is a newish buzzphrase that today’s marketing pros bandy about: “customer journey.” (My first, erroneous thought when I heard that phrase was that it referred the route someone would take to get to Crossgates Mall in Albany.) Essentially, it refers to “the steps your customer(s) go through in engaging with your company, whether it be a product, an online experience, retail experience, or a service, or any combination.” (The word “experience” is also used a bit more than one would think necessary. I was once in CVS buying shampoo. As I was checking out, the clerk asked, “How was your shopping experience?” It was an odd thing to be asked, and all I could think to say was, “Well, I wasn’t eaten by jackals in the shampoo aisle so on that basis I suppose it was fine.” Sometimes, we don’t want an “experience”; we just want to buy the thing we came in for and get out as quickly as possible.)
Anyway, the customer journey is tracked using maps, and evaluating customer journeys is a way to determine the quality of the experience a brand offers a customer. (A related concept is “sales funnel.” Whether you are sending customers on a journey or through a funnel I guess depends on your attitude toward your customers.) An important aspect of the customer journey is the associated analytics. Today’s CMOs (chief marketing officers) demand data more than anything—largely under pressure from their bosses, the CFOs (chief financial officers), who today are playing a larger and larger role in marketing decisions (or, more importantly, marketing budgets). With all the various marketing channels available, CMOs need to know what channels are working, and which aren’t. Each channel has to justify itself economically. After all, why spend money on something that isn’t working? As a result, CMOs and CFOs are looking for better and better metrics to rationalize spending money on these efforts. Ultimately, what doesn’t get measured doesn’t get a budget.
One big reason that CMOs love electronic media vs. print is that electronic media are more trackable. The response to something like a printed brochure isn’t easily measured. A brochure is handed out and even if a sales prospect has to fill out a form or provide some other kind of information to get that brochure, no one really knows whether an action was taken as the result of that brochure. Did someone start off on a customer journey (or enter the sales funnel—choose your metaphor) and buy something as a result of receiving that brochure? Or did it get stuffed in a drawer and forgotten—or did it just go right into the recycling bin? No one knows.
The same goes for signage. No one really knows how effective signage is. Think about real estate signs. If you’re selling your house, you put a sign out front, ideally to attract potential buyers. Everyone does it, right? But how effective is that sign really? Was it the sign that attracted potential buyers, or was it, say, a Multiple Listing Service (MLS) search or even a social media reference? (I am Facebook friends with a couple of realtors, who sometimes post properties for sale.) No one knows. It could be that no one ever saw the sign except the neighbors, who probably aren’t interested in buying your house.
Obviously, certain types of signage are necessary—if you’re a retail location, you need to have a sign to tell people that you’re there—but a lot of promotional signage like billboards or even in-store signs, POP displays, and so forth, also suffer from a measurability gap.
Enter QR and AR, codes that can push recipients into online “track and trace” marketing environments. The marketing automation systems that track customer journeys can now include print in the metrics and analytics that CMOs and CFOs increasingly require. A printed brochure can include a QR code so that if the recipient does go to a website to get more information, or initiates a purchase (or journey), the CMO knows that the brochure was the source. The same goes for signage. That QR code on a sign not only offers a benefit for the consumer—a link to get more info, a rich media experience, etc.—but also provides essential analytics for the marketer. And by making print as measurable as electronic media, it helps reduce marketers’ resistance to using print.
Understanding marketing automation, customer journey/sales funnel analytics, and big data are the next big challenges for print businesses, both small- and wide-format.