Testing bar code technology with smart phones

Sharon Bolton spotted “those funky tags” — known formally as two-dimensional bar codes — when she took her college-age daughter to catch a train at the Rensselaer rail station in Albany, N.Y., last week.

“I looked up and saw these little black-and-white boxes on the lime green wall,” said Bolton, a graphic artist from Saratoga Springs, N.Y., “and right away I knew they were those funky tags where you click and connect to a website.”

She was one of the 4,500 people daily riding Albany’s buses or passing through its rail stations that are the focus of a test of the visibility and effectiveness of 2-D bar code technology. The promotion is being conducted by the Lamar Advertising Co., one of the country’s largest outdoor advertising businesses.

Albany’s transit system has been blanketed with the bar codes — also called quick response or QR bar codes — which consumers can scan with their smart phone and, within seconds, connect to a website, photo or video. In the Albany test, users access, where they can register for a contest to win an iPad.

“Several national clients asked us about using this technology in their advertising, so we decided to see how well it works,” said Clifford B. Wohl, vice president and general manager of Lamar Transit Advertising, the part of the company dealing with transit systems.

Bar code campaigns are cropping up in other transit hubs, as well. In Denver International Airport, for example, Colorado-based FirstBank began to offer this month a free download of an e-book to passengers scanning the bar code on posters mounted in terminal corridors.

The posters say “free books,” and mobile phone users scanning the code — a scattering of black-and-white boxes inside a larger square — are linked to a web page with several e-book choices that can be downloaded at no cost. In the first two weeks, the most popular titles were “The Art of War,” “Treasure Island” and “The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin,” according to Matt Best, a spokesman for the bank’s advertising agency, TDA Advertising & Design, in Boulder, Colo.

Airline passengers looking to fill their waiting time can also download free crosswords starting Nov. 1, and free Sudoku games beginning Dec. 1, Best said. The effort, which is hosted by Clear Channel Airports, part of Phoenix-based Clear Channel Outdoor, another large outdoor ad company, had about 1,250 downloads in the first 17 days after it began on Oct. 1, he said. Overall, about 7,000 books and puzzles are expected to be downloaded during the five-month promotion.

Jodi Senese, the CBS Outdoor executive vice president for marketing, said the company expected to have more bar code campaigns under way after Dec. 1.

For marketers, “this is the holy grail of advertising — interactive media in public places,” said Michael Becker, North American managing director for the Mobile Marketing Association, the industry trade group. But he said the technology had challenges. One is connectivity in places like subways, he said, but added that “a lot of information can be embedded in a QR code, and accessed later.”

Other drawbacks include the lack of a single industry standard for 2-D bar codes in the U.S., and the relative paucity of phones that can use 2-D. The number of users with phones equipped with scanners is expected, however, to rise to 50 percent of all users by the end of next year, Becker said.

In Albany, Lamar has placed graphics on the walls, floors, kiosks and other areas of the city’s two rail stations, and on bus shelters and the ceilings of more than 50 buses run by the city’s Capital District Transportation Authority.

Lamar designed the bar code ads, Wohl said, and spent about $10,000 to post the advertisements in the public locations. The transit authority, said spokesman Margo Janack, is hoping that bar code ads will proliferate and provide new revenue streams to offset lower ridership because of recent job losses.

“The ads look like modern art,” she said. “People are definitely noticing.”

Whether Albany transit users are scanning the ads in great numbers is unknown. There are no reported results so far, Wohl said. Once the results arrive, they will help clarify the extent to which the public recognizes the bar codes.

Bolton said she was familiar with bar codes, but only because her graphics firm had been asked recently to incorporate one in an educational campaign.

The most popular information sought from bar codes includes “where to buy, what do others think, advice on usage and nutritional information,” said Cameron Green, spokesman for GS1, a nonprofit association that works to establish uniform technology standards.

Still, it may take some time to establish consumer familiarity if the experience of one Albany commuter, Abbey Greenbaum, is a guide. Greenbaum, a regional training coordinator for the New York state health department, noticed the Lamar bar code ad on the ceiling of the bus she takes to work everyday.

“I had seen them in magazines. It’s a cute, novelty idea,” she said. She scanned the ad and entered the contest for the iPad. But, she noted, “I was the only one on the bus who did.”