NEW YORK Careful readers of the The New York Times last November saw something unusual: a small bar code at the bottom of an ad for online jewelry retailer Blue Nile. Taking a picture of the code with their cell phones would have brought them to the mobile Web site for Blue Nile, where a coupon was being offered.
The ad was part of a test by Google to use mobile phones to reenergize traditional media with interactivity. While attention has focused on mobile ad networks, several marketers see an immediate opportunity for the cell phone to serve as a digital bridge that connects traditional media -- particularly out-of-home and print placements -- with the interactivity and measurability that's made Internet advertising popular.
For Blue Nile, the promise of measurable results brought it back to print advertising after a seven-year hiatus. In 2001, it stopped buying print and TV ads in large part because their effect on sales was difficult to track, said Darrel Cavens, svp of marketing and technology at Blue Nile. It now spends 95 percent of its marketing budget online, where it holds media to strict accountability standards. "Everything is performance based," Cavens said. "At the end of the day, it's tying the marketing back to revenue driven by it."
(Cavens declined to give specific results for the newspaper ad test with Google, but said the mobile options proved popular and led to increased sales compared to markets where the ads did not include them.)
Mobile can be a convenient way for traditional media to prove its effectiveness, said Spencer Spinnell, head of sales strategy for Google Print Ads. The goal, he added, is for marketers to "track traditional media in the same ways that are relatively easy to do online."
To be sure, bar codes are not a silver bullet. For one, few phones have the software needed to scan such codes. (Google estimates between 3 percent and 5 percent of the approximately 243 million cell phone subscribers in the U.S. can scan the codes.) Google hopes to change that by incorporating the software with its Android mobile operating system, slated for release in the spring.
Eventually, however, bar code scanning, already ubiquitous in Japan, will likely become a popular navigational device, according to Jonathan Bulkeley, CEO of Scanbuy, a New York firm developing the technology for marketing. "Everybody is carrying around a personal interactive device and it will be able to interact with everything around you and each step will be measurable," Bulkeley said.
For now, many marketers use the more prosaic short code, used for texting, to make available additional information or special offers. Blue Nile included a text code in its newspaper ad, along with more typical response options like a 1-800 number and Web site.
Reebok saw success with texting as part of its "Run easy" campaign last year. Rather than use it for direct response, it made it a user-generated content tool: Users were invited in out-of-home ads to text their favorite places to run and odd things they'd seen while running. The content was then posted on the runeasy.com Web site.
Including mobile options on traditional ads also has the benefit of fully integrating mobile into a campaign rather than acting as a one-off experiment, said Gene Keenan, vp of mobile strategy at Isobar, the digital network (part of Aegis Group) that worked on the project with Reebok. Mobile components are often tacked on at the end of campaign planning when funds are left over, he explained, and without the awareness of mass media pushes. "I see a lot of campaigns that have no support whatsoever," he said. "Unless you stumbled upon it, you'd never know it was there."
Similarly, Microsoft saw a healthy response in its pairing of mobile with a traditional ad. In December, it ran an ad in Computer World offering a case study about the business benefits of SQL servers. The ad included a short code with an offer for a digital white paper. Microsoft agency Universal McCann bet the tactic would appeal to a techy audience and said it ended up seeing the cost per action within the print placement perform better than online media.
"There's an instant gratification" to using mobile with a print ad, said Brian Monahan, who leads interactive strategy for the Microsoft account at Universal McCann. "Having a URL that someone needs to write down, then bring back to their desk is too much. [Short codes are] an interesting way to harvest more interactions with the ad."
Such accountability could help hold on to ad spending. "Right off the bat, that's going to be a measure of accountability rather than qualified circulation," said James Kiernan, group director at Publicis Groupe's MediaVest, which has used short codes in campaigns for Procter & Gamble brands like Always and Secret.
Yet others warn against the trap of mobile becoming the new click-through rate. "It's dangerous in the sense that it's only effective in measuring direct response," Keenan said. "It's not effective in measuring branding."