Wikipedia has just announced a project to link physical locations with their online wikipedia articles. Using QR codes in stickers, a passer-by can access from her smartphone the wikipedia article in her language relevant to the location or reference of the sticker: a landmark, a painting in a museum,  a statue…

QR codes transform the physical world into a digital interface, linking atoms to bits just using a smartphone. As such, they could be used with success in printed media to cross the gap between publishing time and real time, between the limitations of print and the possibilities of online rich media. They require an smartphone, able to use a QR code recognition app and internet access to retrieve the linked content. That means the use of QR codes could be limited to US and Western Europe, but that will change over the next few years. These are a few ideas that could enrich the experience of reading a print newspaper.

In advertising, QR codes could change the print business model from selling audiences to advertisers to include additional cost per click (CPC) and cost per action (CPA) models:

  • Track advertising actions from consumers, so the newspaper could demonstrate a direct, proven link between advertising and sales. A QR code could be a link to an online store, but also to a coupon to be redeemed in a brick-and-mortar store.
  • Generate extra revenue through affiliate sales: from advertising, but also from shows and movie listings, product reviews…

Embedded in editorial content, the uses of QR codes can get more creative:

  • Provide a link to an online updated version of the print article. This would avoid the feeling of old-news when covering fast-unfolding events. Think of a citizen revolt that may have already succeed or maybe been repressed by the time the newspaper hit the stands. This would also relieve pressure on print to compete with other channels and allow it to focus on long, in-depth stories that provide context.
  • Provide a link to an archive or series of articles around the same topic. Useful for infrequent readers if the article is one in a series.
  • Or maybe you’d want to let users download an ebook or pdf of that coverage. Add Paypal or other easy-to-use payment system and you have another revenue stream that takes advantage of already produced content.
  • When there is a high profile event, the limits of print mean that only a small part of the work of the photography staff can be featured in the printed newspaper. Those limits don’t exist online, where picture galleries are common. You can provide a link to the online full picture gallery from the printed newspaper. Or to (curated, of course) user-generated content around that particular event.
  • Sometimes, graphic support can come in the form of an infographic, or static data visualization, like when presenting election results. The next step would be to provide a link for the online, interactive version of that data visualization.
  • The same idea could be applied when rich-media could provide useful context to the printed story, like footage about a riot, a sport event, or access to the full video interview with a high-profile individual.
  • It’s quite common, at least in Spain, to read (or, more likely, browse) the newspaper while in a coffee or a bar. If you see an interesting article, a QR code can be used to bookmark the online version of the story for later read. Most likely this would be a sort of partnership with services like Delicious, Reading, Instapaper or similar.
  • QR codes can also be used to collect feedback or content from print readers.

Also, copying wikipedia’s idea would be a great marketing campaign for a newspaper: put ads for your paper with QR codes specific for that location, linking to coverage of that location. Or ads emphasizing an important topic (sports, education, politics…) with a QR code that links to online coverage of that topic.

These advertising and editorial uses of QR codes have an important consequence: they generate data that can be processed to obtain usage patterns and other insights, which can be quite valuable for advertising and content production.

The idea of using QR codes in print newspapers has been around for over more than two years, but so far, the main adopters of QR codes have been advertisers and print magazines. They have been using it to provide extra content to promotions, or enhanced magazine covers. In one of such cases, Esquire used codes similar to QR to provide enhanced reality content for its cover and a few pages of content, but, besides being a one-time effort, it’s not really the same as linking to online content and services.

There’s a warning, though. QR codes are just an implementation of an idea: the link between the real world and relevant information about it online. It’s a technology with a great danger of being rendered obsolete by a better implementation. Think of Google Goggles, for example, which uses text and image recognition technology to do Google searches or text translations from a picture taken by your smartphone. As these implementations evolve, a more seamless link between atoms and bits could appear, a better interface for integrating print and online content, but the idea would remain the same.

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