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Country Artists Reach Out With QR Codes

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Cybergrass QR Code/CMA/ Nashville, TN -- By Sarah Skates
QR ("Quick Response") codes, the latest new media marketing method, are popping up everywhere from movie posters to album covers. Easily recognizable as black-and-white squares with black boxes in three of their corners, these powerful codes represent a step forward from the traditional barcode.

Because they hold more data than a standard barcode, QR codes can store contact information, a geolocation, a link or a video. Unlike old barcodes, these new QR matrix codes do not need to access a database in order to reference their content. Instead, a QR code can hold enough information to stand on its own.

The value of this development is not lost on the music industry's digital strategists. "QR codes give you the opportunity to take the marketing you are doing in the physical world and drive people to digital interactive content," noted Heather McBee, VP, Digital Business, Sony Music Nashville.

There is in fact no limit to where a marketer might position a QR code, from stickers to postcards to a projection on the side of a building. Flipping through a magazine, readers can often find more than one QR code, whether in an advertisement or an article. Graphic designers who create ads might think these black-and-white boxes detract from their artwork, but techie marketers are working to make them more aesthetically pleasing. Recently, Zac Brown Band's team even built the band's logo into its QR code.

A smartphone or similar device is usually required to read a QR code. But that's no problem, considering that 40 percent of mobile phone users have a smartphone, according to July 2011 data from Nielsen. These users can photograph the code with their smartphone cameras. Then a special application — there are numerous ones available for free download — processes the code. Some scanners work better than others, so trying a few might be necessary to find the one most compatible with each mobile device.

Many Nashville labels and marketers are building promotions around QR codes, which open fan engagement opportunities limited only by how far creative teams can stretch their imaginations.

A retail shopper might see This Is My Blood, the debut album by The Dirt Drifters, in a store. If they're curious, a quick scan of the QR code sticker on the CD case takes the user's mobile phone browser to a site that allows them to stream the album instantly and in its entirety while standing in the store — or even to select specific tracks. Browsers can also preview 30-second segments from each song. This approach to promotion will soon be available on every release coming from Warner Music group, including catalog product.

Sony Music Nashville has also used QR codes to promote recent album launches. "Around CMA Music Festival, we put QR codes in the marketplace," said McBee. "One of them took you to buy the (self-titled) album from Ronnie Dunn. We also ran some print ads for Jake Owen that included a QR code. It linked to the video for the first single (and title track), ‘Barefoot Blue Jean Night' (written by Dylan Altman, Eric Paslay and Terry Sawchuk) because it was such an engaging visual that we wanted people to see it. It was a strong selling point."

Trackable codes such as the ones used by Sony allow marketers to know how many people scanned them. Another way to gauge QR code usage is to offer fans a discount or coupon, which helps them track engagement when that coupon is redeemed.

Jennie Smythe, CEO, Girlilla Marketing, is offering coupons and other content through QR codes for a number of artists, including Zac Brown Band. In order to host its intimate preshow eat-and-greets with fans, the band has a cooking trailer affectionately known as Cookie.

"We have a QR code placed on Cookie, with the idea that as they're stopping all across the country, people can get information about Cookie and the band," she explained. "That's where we started, and now we are implementing ways for people to learn about Executive Chef Rusty (Hamlin), who helps prepare the food as well as the video recipes from Zac's cookbook (Southern Ground), and his sauces and rubs. It gives us something to talk about in addition to the music — more than ‘come see us in concert, come buy our CD.' It's a lifestyle thing that we can offer the fans, which is fun and doesn't cost them any money."

Plans are in the works for the Cookie code to link to a coupon that will be redeemable on site at ZBB concerts and events. Brown's signature sauces and the recipes used for that night's cooking are among the items being discussed for this program. "It's an easy and cheap way to deliver a quick response," Smythe said. "If the fan is going to take the time to get out their phone, figure out how to scan it and then scan it, then I want them to walk right over to where they can get something of value or a piece of content that enhances the experience."

Common knowledge would suggest that QR code users are young or tech-savvy, two demographics that often go hand-in-hand. But, said McBee, "I don't think that any of us can prove that that's been who uses QR codes more often. No one knows that for sure. I haven't seen any research on it. But everybody that's using a smartphone can utilize a QR code."

Of the numerous QR codes that people encounter, many go unscanned for a variety of reasons, ranging from lack of time or interest to not knowing how to do it. "The education process is the hardest part of implementing QR code usage," Smythe observed.

Additionally, some codes simply take the user to a regular website, which can be a bit of a letdown and may even discourage some users from scanning other codes in the future. In such cases, it would have been better for the marketer to simply provide consumers with a Web address. When linking to a site from a QR code, it's important to have a functioning mobile website that was designed for optimal use on a smartphone or similar device.

Creating a QR code is somewhat similar to creating a barcode. Many Web teams can build one for a nominal cost, which varies from basically free to a few hundred dollars, depending on the functionality and information stored within. When building a QR code, it is important to consider the size of the code and the surface on which it appears. The size matters in relation to a camera's scanning capabilities. And after trial and error, Smythe reports that putting a code on a glossy surface isn't ideal because the reflection makes it harder to scan.

Though the code itself is inexpensive to create, there is a cost associated with its placement, whether on an ad, sticker, flier or poster. The codes can link to any number of items, including exclusive content, preorder opportunities, special deals on concert tickets or discounted items from the concession stand. Offering free or discounted merchandise can also take dollars out of the marketing budget. And giving away content, such as a recipe or a streaming video, costs little to nothing.

"As you can imagine, trying to bring something that is both dynamic and interactive into the physical world is a little bit tough," said McBee. "That is something that QR codes have started enabling us to do. We are really excited by the opportunities that are presenting themselves."

Smythe agreed. "There are all kinds of cool, crazy ideas for QR codes that we are just getting started on.

© 2012 CMA Close Up® News Service / Country Music Association®, Inc.

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