We see it happen all the time: An artist employs an emerging new technology in the marketing campaign for a new album. The campaign gets a lot of press because it's new and different. Fans catch on and begin using the technology.
The latest technology to get this treatment is quick response (QR) codes, those black-and-white, bar code-like pixilated images that can be printed on virtually any surface. Scanning them with a smartphone launches a website on the phone's browser where consumers can get more information about a product.
QR codes aren't new. But the recording industry recently began experimenting with how to incorporate the technology into album promotional campaigns and on-site event activities.
One of the most prominent uses occurred earlier this year when Lupe Fiasco used QR codes in ramping up the promotion for his new album Lasers. His label, Atlantic Records, printed a special QR code on stickers, postcards and posters, and even projected a large version of the code against buildings in New York and Los Angeles. The code launched a mobile website where fans could preorder the album, as well as access new exclusive content each week until the album arrived.
According to Atlantic Records director of digital product development Mike Mignano, 25% of all preorders for Lasers resulted from the QR code. "It surprised us a little bit," he says. "We were really happy."
Atlantic has since used QR codes in a different kind of campaign for Death Cab for Cutie, and is evaluating future possibilities.
Powering both campaigns is RedLaser, a QR code app developer acquired by eBay last year. According to RedLaser senior director of mobile/GM Rob Veres, the key to a successful QR code campaign is offering a compelling reward related to the user's location at a given time. In other words, give them instant gratification, not just another advertising message.
"The QR code is just a gateway for the user to access stuff that they want," he says. "You need to give them a reason to get out their phone, scan that code and be excited about what's on the other side."
The most obvious reflection of this is at concerts, where QR codes are being used by venues to offer discounts on concessions, and by artists for things like discounted merch and VIP seating upgrades. RedLaser has implemented QR code campaigns with events like the Sasquatch! Music Festival in George, Wash., and works with Live Nation on campaigns for the Gorge Amphitheatre in George and the Shoreline Amphitheater in San Francisco.
But for QR codes to evolve from a short-term novelty gimmick to a lasting, ubiquitous strategy will mean overcoming some barriers. For starters, the codes require smartphones, which Nielsen estimates account for only 38% of U.S. mobile phones in use today. They also require an app that can read QR codes, which most smartphone owners must download to their device before engaging with the QR campaign. And there's still the issue of educating fans on what this strange-looking image is in the first place.
"There's a lot of promotion that needs to happen on-site just to make fans aware of it," says Matt Thomas, director of business development at GetGlue, which used QR codes to let fans check into artists' concerts for exclusive stickers and rewards. "There are certain hurdles that people have to jump through that limit the mass scalability of this."
That's why QR companies like RedLaser are aggressively targeting the music industry for partnerships. While neither side would discuss specific numbers, RedLaser charges record labels less for QR campaigns than it charges other clients because working with a popular artist is an effective way to introduce the QR code experience to a large audience. Many avid fans will take the time to download a QR code app if it provides them access to, say, an exclusive track. Once downloaded, RedLaser now has a foothold in that user's phone, which may make the user more likely to engage in other QR campaigns with other brands. GetGlue offers QR code campaigns for free. And for labels that are seeking new tricks to sell more albums, the price and the results so far are hard to pass up.
"It remains to be seen whether QR codes will become mainstream," Atlantic's Mignano says. "People are still figuring out what they are, what they're supposed to do with them. But where there's a unique opportunity to integrate it, we'll definitely consider it again."