Point your phone at a printed page. Take a picture. Get taken to a website. That’s the power of QR codes, codes embedded in print that can link cell phones to specific websites. They’ve been doing this for years in Japan, and now they are starting to do it in Europe. Sooner or later it will get to the States.

From the user’s point of view, this is very cool. But the important issue for newspapers and journalists is that every click gives feedback on what is interesting to whom and when. In the post-Google advertising environment, QR codes could finally help solve the dilemma that has long plagued advertisers, the “50%-of-advertising-doesn’t work, but-I-don’t-know-which-half” problem.

QR codes are coming

George Alexander at Beyond Print describes QR codes:

The “QR code,” a kind of two-dimensional bar code intended to be read by cell phone cameras, is now being included in a few European periodicals. The code directs your phone’s web browser to a site with additional information. Some Japanese magazines are full of the codes.

He notes that QR codes are beginning to appear on the pages of some European publications; one of the earliest adopters was the German tabloid Welt Kompakt, which started including QR codes with some of its articles in late 2007.

“The Japanese, of course, are already heavy users of this technology,” writes Alexander. “In one Japanese poll, over three-quarters of respondents said they had used QR codes, and many magazines incorporate them.”

In Japan, black-and-white QR codes are already old news. From a repost originally at Creativity Online:

A recent design project from Japan infuses contemporary art into ho-hum QR code graphics. To tout Takashi Murakami’s ongoing collaboration with Louis Vuitton, Tokyo-based creative agency SET dispensed with the standard black-and-white pattern and designed a stylized QR code inspired by the artist’s work for the fashion brand.

By providing a quick and convenient way to immediately go from a printed page to the web, QR codes provide a new link between the real and web worlds.

Real-time user metrics from print

Mediabids has demonstrated that if you can supply the numbers to demonstrate that advertising works, it’s not that hard to sell print ads. The QR code + the cell phone brings that functionality to news-on-paper.

The advantages for the business side of the house is clear. Communities of interest form and disband in days. If their emergence can be anticipated, it’s much easier to sell them stuff. A classic example of preparing products to sell to a suddenly convened community of interest is T-shirts to go with a concert. Another example is how public fascination with the 9/11 attacks led to the 9/11 Commission report rising to the top of the bestseller list in only a few weeks.

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The Pet Shop Boys used a QR Code for the cover art on their 2007 single ‘Integral.’

The new ability of a print media that can output data streams at production speeds and costs means any content that appears on a blog or a wiki can be re-formated and published in print. The newer ability of print as a channel for on-the-ground information to come back to the web means that the print edition can now add an important dimension to the needed feedback.

Gauging Reader Interest with QR Codes

The potential value for journalists is less immediately clear. The traction of a story is created when focused interest emerges from the audience. Authentic interest has to be voluntary. It cannot be forced or manufactured. In the classroom, that’s called the teachable moment. In the news cycle, it’s captured in the notion of the “big story.”

If journalists assemble their stories on wikis and have access to real-time feedback on what is interesting to the communities they serve, it will give them better guidance on how to move with a story. Public response, gathered through QR code input, could help reporters to better and more quickly learn what stories the public wants to read. A story becomes a true co-creation formed by the tensions of the community’s interest and the reporter’s ability to tell a better story.

A versioned newspaper filled with QR codes can pinpoint “where” an exchange takes place. “Where” is the critical issue for successful versioned newspaper distribution. Once a newspaper ad salesperson can deliver “where” information to local advertisers, it’s a very clear value proposition.

For an editor or journalist, QR codes can deliver real time data on the most ineffable and important feedback, answering questions like “Is this story interesting to people who live in a geographically defined community?” While there is an approximation of the “interesting” factor on the web, the fact is that the web is still for a niche audience of very interested people. If the task is to engage the previously uninterested, data from web clicks is much too noisy.

QR codes have the potential to cut through that noise and help transform the way we use these media. My personal passion is not print or newspapers, it’s fixing high school education. Since I believe that print is the best learning tool and the web is the best talking and tracking tool, as the connections grow between these two media, a tipping point in educating our young people will emerge. That’s one way the world is changing.

The common wisdom about print has created a ferocious noise that has drowned out the signals of new print-to-the-cloud technology. I will try to amplify that signal over the next few weeks. Once it gets on the radar of journalists and newspaper publishers, the world will change, again.

Michael Josefowicz spent 30 years at Red Ink Productions, a boutique print production brokerage he co-founded which served New York-based design studios and non-profit organizations. He came out of retirement to teach production at Parsons The New School for Design for the next 7 years. He now blogs about the digital printing industry at Tough Love for Xerox.