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Linking the Hard Copy and Digital Worlds

Once upon a time, back in the 1990s, everyone was making predictions about what marketing communications would be like in the new millennium. One prediction I recall seeing demonstrated – more through creative video editing than reality – was being able to hold a flier, postcard or advertisement up to a computer screen and see related interactive or multimedia information. At the time, I thought that was pretty cool, but it seemed more like something from a Buck Rodgers flick than the near future.

Back in the 1990s, technology to connect physical, graphic communication with digital information actually existed. What was missing was an infrastructure that was accessible, affordable and convenient for the masses. Twenty years later, the infrastructure does exist, is accessible, is affordable and is convenient to the masses. In fact, it’s more convenient that ever, since it’s in our pockets and our living rooms.

There are several options available for building bridges between the quality and impact of physical, graphic communications and the versatility and convenience of digital content. We thought it would fun to compare a few starting with the simple and familiar and working up to the more complex and exotic.

An Old Friend…Or One That Just Won’t Leave?

Quick Response, or QR, codes seemed to take the marketing world by storm a few years ago. Unfortunately the impact was not what many had hoped it would be. Most smartphones did not ship with a QR reader pre-installed and execution of QR codes has often been less than stellar. Too often they are buried with no call to action. They often link to broken or non-mobile websites. And they don’t belong everywhere – especially in places where they can’t be captured (on highway billboards in 70 MPH traffic) or where a mobile signal is unavailable.

Call it persistence, or stubbornness, it seems QR codes may get a second life. QR codes can now form shapes, logos, words and even portraits. Designers are getting bold and incorporating them as abstract visual elements in their layouts. Adoption rates are still questionable – most studies place the rate for adults in the neighborhood of 20-25% – but with better execution these venerable, yet seemingly ill-fated, links between physical communication and digital content may still have some a chance.

Dial Up the Interaction

Sometimes we forget our smartphones are phones. Where technology like QR codes stumbled because apps were needed, all mobile phones can dial phone numbers and send SMS text messages. But I’m not talking about standard voice telephony or text messaging here, but rather mobile dial codes (MDC) and SMS short codes. MDCs are generally short strings of numbers or a short word, preceded by a series of stars or pound signs. SMS short codes are words sent via text message to a short number. Either technology allows the audience to send a request and instantly receive a link to content or the content itself.

Far from the most futuristic way to connect the hard copy and digital worlds, MDCs and short codes are universal. There are plenty of services that can administer the technology and all of the mobile networks recognize them. Best of all, MDCs and short codes are easy to work into designs, and they don’t require much instruction. Simple calls to action such as “Dial,” “Call” or “Text” followed by the code are enough to get the job done and can be incorporated like any other call out. Of course there are limitations. Interaction must be made through a device connected to a mobile network and a signal must be available. However, since smartphones are by far the most common device you can expect to interact with, it’s more of an opportunity than a limitation.

Going Beyond Reality

If there’s a truly futuristic way of connecting the hard copy and digital worlds, it’s augmented reality. Simply stated, augmented reality is when a digital layer is added over a physical object to provide additional sensory input. Smartphone apps that let you stand on a street corner and scan your surroundings to display information about stores and restaurants are a form of augmented reality. For the purposes of graphic communication, augmented reality provides audio, video, additional imagery or documentation to properly formatted materials. For example, a brochure for a museum exhibit catches your eye and you pick it up. You waive your smartphone camera over the cover and a video appears on the screen, taking you into the museum to get a better explanation of the exhibit, further enticing you to go.

Again, as with any of the options so far, augmented reality has its limitations. Generally, a third-party service with an app is required. Designs must meet certain parameters trigger the augmented reality app. However, augmented reality has already started gathering momentum in the world of magazine and newspaper publication, delivering additional content as well and inking physical and online versions. Augmented reality services are also helping by providing free or low-cost development options to brands and publishers, as well as free apps to users, making it a technology to watch and consider utilizing.

Making the Connection

Perhaps the closest of to the 1990s vision of connecting printed material to a computer screen near field communication (NFC). Another technology that has been in use for some time in commerce and industry, NFC is related to the technology that is used in contact-less key cards, credit cards, anti-theft and inventory systems, and key-less automobile ignition switches. Although still in its early stages, NFC is becoming more prevalent in smartphones, tablets and smart televisions, with consumer focus on connecting entertainment content between devices.

NFC does have limitations, namely that it is only now starting to appear in devices on a broader scale. Given that NFC follows a universal ISO standard and it does not rely on the availability of a mobile or even Wi-Fi network; it’s a technology that pundits are keeping an eye on for growth. In terms of marketing communications, once it becomes more prevalent in devices, NFC is almost the perfect way to connect the hard copy and digital worlds. All that is required for physical collateral to trigger the technology is the inclusion of an inexpensive wafer-thin chip that can be part of a label or placed between two layers of paper or any other substrate.

While it may not seem like we are living in the future that was predicted a couple of decades ago, we are indeed living in an exciting era of communication. Today’s marketing material vendors can do more than ever. With precision specifications and rock-solid project management, you and your marketing supply chain can turn out graphic marketing communication materials that would have made heads spin twenty years ago.