Marketing Your Science Using Mobile Barcodes

22. June 2012

Marc Kuchner

Mobile barcodes are the latest marketing fad. See an ad for your favorite rock band with a square barcode in the corner? Scan it in with your cell phone, and up pops the band’s website; the video rolls and the music starts playing. A mobile barcode transforms any visible surface into an internet gateway, helping potential customers find information, purchase products—even get free mp3s.

The popular QR (quick response) code was invented by a Toyota subsidiary called Denso-Wave; that one looks like pattern of black-and-white squares. Microsoft has its own proprietary mobile barcode system, simply called “tag.” The Microsoft codes contain colored triangles. Each type of barcode can be used to call up several different kinds of content: a URL, some text, a phone number or an SMS message. You can make the barcodes yourself for free on several websites, including http://www.barcodelink.net/ and http://qrcode.kaywa.com/.

How can we scientists take advantage of this new marketing tool?

Connect with your colleagues by giving out your phone number via barcode. You can display the code wherever people might go to look for your contact information. Barbara Rojas-Ayala, a graduate student at Cornell, told me, “I put one in my website because people are obsessed with their smartphones. If someone wants my info in his/her phone, they can have it easily with the QR code.” I might try putting one on my business card—or maybe even my CV if I’m feeling brave.

Use the barcodes on scientific posters. I like the idea of using barcodes on posters partly because it reminds us what a poster ought to be: an invitation to investigate further. Rojas-Ayala says that her partner, who is also an astronomer, saw a QR code on a beer bottle and thought it was a good idea for posters. Instead of printing 20-30 copies of the poster on letter-size paper with small figures, small characters, etc., they opted to add the QR code with all their professional info and a link to a PDF of the poster.

Katy Meyers, a graduate student in the department of anthropology at Michigan State University, tried a similar experiment at a meeting of the American Association of Physical Anthropologists. She found that her website received about 30 more hits on the days when her poster was hanging.

Using barcodes for marketing materials. A mobile barcode might also have a place on a different kind of conference poster. When I organized a scientific conference this past fall, I figured I would try adding a QR tag to the poster we are using to advertise. People saw the poster when they were roaming the hallways—in other words, when they had their cell phones handy but not a computer. 

Be sensitive to non-mobile users. Of course, not everyone is excited about mobile barcodes yet. University of Maryland grad student Jessica Donaldson told me, “It is kind of annoying if you don’t have a smartphone.” With this in mind, I shrank the image of the QR code and pasted it into the lower right corner of the poster, where it wouldn’t offend scientists who don’t have the technology.

Scientists can sometimes be resistant to new marketing concepts. It is our calling, after all, to get to the bottom of things, so we sometimes fear new communication tools until we’re sure we understand them enough to trust them. And it’s not yet clear how important this tool will ultimately become for us.

But so far I’ve found QR tags make memorable little conversation pieces. Even if they aren’t being used, they help me engage with my colleagues when I show them the poster. Often, that’s half the battle. As it says in the classic marketing book, Cluetrain Manifesto, markets are conversations—and anything that helps you start one can help you market your science.

This post is adapted from content that first appeared on the Postdocs Forum and Marketing for Scientists with the kind permission of the author.

 Marc J. Kuchner (marc@marketingforscientists.com) is an astrophysicist at NASA, a country songwriter, and the author of the book Marketing for Scientists: How To Shine In Tough Times. His website can be found at http://www.marketingforscientists.com/.

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