(This article is reposted from The PostDocs Forum.)

The other day I was waiting in the subway, staring at advertisements on the walls of the tunnel to pass the time.  I soon found myself contemplating a series of black-and-white chessboard-like patterns in the corners of the ads.  These patterns seem to be appearing everywhere—magazines, signs, passports—like giant square bird droppings on our visual landscape.

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.

That’s a smart trick for a rock band; but can we scientists take advantage of this new marketing tool?  I’ve been wondering how we can use this technology to help build relationships with our audiences: our colleagues, funding agencies, students, etc.  Today I thought I’d share with some of what I’ve learned on this topic.

First, I learned that mobile barcodes have a rich history (cue the sweeping cellos) and come in different varieties.  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, likehttp://www.barcodelink.net/ and http://qrcode.kaywa.com/.

Next I started looking into ways to people have used the codes to market their science.  The first application I found was science museums; curators have begun embedding the codes into exhibits to help visitors access more information about what they are seeing. QR codes in the exhibits at Michigan’s Cranbrook Institute of Science offer links to Wikipedia entries and relevant websites like the census bureau.  The Heard Natural Science Museum and Wildlife Sanctuary posts QR codes to help its visitors find maps of the sanctuary.

Public outreach is one thing.  But what about when we market our work to our fellow scientists?

One simple way to use barcodes to connect with your colleagues is to use them to give out your phone number.  You can make a barcode containing your phone number and display it wherever people might go to look for our 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.

Barbara has also started experimenting with using the barcodes at scientific posters.  “My partner, also an astronomer, saw a QR code in a beer bottle and we thought it was a good `green’ idea for posters.  Instead of printing twenty or thirty copies of the poster in a letter-size paper with small figures, small characters, etc., that probably are going to be forgotten in a hotel room, we could just add the QR code with all our professional info and a link to a .pdf copy 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 (AAPA).   She found that her website received “about 30 more hits on the days when my poster was hanging.” Maybe that’s not a properly controlled experiment. But at least maybe it demonstrates that adding the codes didn’t completely cancel the marketing value of the poster itself.

I like the idea of using mobile barcodes on posters partly because it reminds us what a poster ought to be:  an invitation to investigate further. I think sometimes we scientists view posters as repositories of knowledge, and try to cram in as much information as we can onto the poster itself.  Mobile barcodes codes help us think instead about the customer experience–what’s it like to be that person who encounters your poster on display? What would compel that person to take the next step towards learning more about your research, to move down your marketing funnel towards a new collaboration with you?

With these thoughts in mind, I wanted to try using a mobile barcode on a different kind of conference poster.  I’m working on organizing a scientific conference this fall, and I figured I would try adding a QR tag to the poster we are using to advertise the conference. People will see this poster when they are roaming the hallways, when they will likely have their cell phones handy but maybe not a computer.   I’m hoping the codes generate student participation in the conference, since younger scientists may be tickled by the trendiness of the gesture.

So I went to http://www.barcodelink.net/ and typed in a link to the conference website.  It spit out a QR tag made just for me, a little .png file.  Then, of course, I wanted to try reading my new barcode.  To read the code you must first install an app on your phone, like NeoReader for the iPhone, Barcode Scanner for Android phones, or BeeTagg for the Blackberry. I installed the Barcode Scanner app on my ‘droid.

I pointed my phone at the poster, lined it up in the viewfinder.  The image went in and out of focus for a few seconds as I watched.  Then the phone beeped, and then a live hyperlink appeared on the screen pointing to the conference website.  I was giddy with geeky joy!

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–it’s just kind of a blobby thing.”  With this possible reaction in mind, I shrank the image of the QR code down and pasted it into the lower right corner of the conference poster, where it wouldn’t offend scientists who don’t have smartphones.

Scientists can sometime 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.

And in the meantime, at least some people are taking this new technology very seriously.  At least one tattoo parlor offers QR code tattoos, which you could use to market your science twenty-four hours a day, right on your skin.  I’d get one myself if they didn’t look so much like bird droppings.

 

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