QR Codes: What’s a Theatre to Do?

09.08.10 | 21 Comments

CATEGORIES conversation starter, facts + figures, ideas, marketing, social media, sponsorship, theatrical ecosystem, Uncategorized

Mashable proclaims that QR codes are poised to hit the mainstream. So what’s a theater to do?

First, what are QR codes? QR = Quick Response. They are square bar codes packed with more dense information than the traditional bar code you recognize, and are most often linked to a website. If you have a barcode scanner app installed on your smartphone, with the click of your camera, these codes will automatically open your web browser to the linked website. Still confused?

Take a picture of this code with a QR reader app on your mobile phone, and it will lead you back to the 2amt front page on your phone. Go ahead, try it. We’ll wait.

They’ve been in use in Japan for more than a decade, but have only recently gained steam stateside. A few weeks ago, Devon spotted one on the N train in NYC on a poster for the Freelancer’s Union.

In theory, a QR code saves you time from having to type in the numbers and letters of a website address. As we spend more of our time glued to mobile phones (with sometimes difficult to maneuver keyboard touch screens), this is no small feat. It also provides a bit more mystery for the user. If I can read your website address, I probably have a pretty good idea about the content I’m going to find there. If your website is called www.goodbooks.com, I don’t expect to find a video of a lion or a discount ticket to the Lion King there. If instead I’m taking a photo of a square with a bunch of black dots, I have absolutely no idea what kind of website is going to appear in my browser. This sense of secrecy can be a valuable motivator for action.

Why should an organization use this?

If you plaster a QR code on a bus shelter poster, a magazine ad, or a post card, and provide the user with something useful, say a discounted ticket or a secret behind-the-scenes video, on a unique landing page, you can exactly track its impact.

(You know those annoying freescore.com commercials with Ben Stein? Yes, they use different URLS on different stations and different times. For example, freescore20.com. That’s just another way of them tracking which commercials are making the most impact. Let’s say freescore20.com might have gotten a lot of traffic, but freescore30.com had more conversions.)

Why should a patron scan this?

Mashable agreeably writes that one of the most important questions is “why should I scan this?”

And they’re right. Why should you? If it’s just to get a link to your homepage, why should they fire up an app rather than typing in www.abctheater.org. The challenge is to make the QR code worth the five-second-firing-up-the-scanner-app effort. You have to provide the scanner with something unique. Something worthwhile.

So how are people using them?

  • At conferences, instead of handing out business cards, snap a pic of someone’s name badge for all of their key details, all conveniently imported directly to your address book.
  • At museums, libraries, and grocery stores, to provide more in-depth coverage of many different items, all in close proximity.
  • On bus stops, when you routinely need time-dependent information. Or on pieces of mail, when you routinely need location-dependent information.
  • On billboards or TV commercials when you might have only a few seconds to grab the information.
  • On posters, to simplify the “click stream” of the information you’re trying to find (compare the ease of snapping a photo, with the complex instructions on the right)
  • To highlight the history of a particular object or location
  • On signage, to be language-agnostic/foreigner-friendly
  • On buildings and real estate signs, for more information about the property
  • As art (via graffiti, gardening, and yes Travis, even cupcakes)

And, scavenger hunting

Try this code. It will lead you back to Talkbackr.com on your phone. You can create a custom QR code for your event pages at Talkbackr now.

Back in January, Devon wrote a post on a Foursquare scavenger hunt. Unlock enough badges themed to a production and users win free tickets to a show.  Foursquare just hit 100 million check-ins. Location-based apps are getting big. And QR codes can and will play into this trend.

A couple of months after Devon’s post, Marc commented on the site: “what if we can combine this Foursquare scavenger hunt with QR codes? Make it some kind of ‘National Treasure’ or ‘Amazing Race’ type of deal. Hide some QR code in locations where people need to check in with Foursquare. Each QR code then has a clue for the next location. The last location could hold some final clue that you need to text or call in to receive some kind of major prize…”

Now, The Boston Globe and the Smithsonian Institution have already built scavenger hunts. They used a new app on the scene, SCVNGR. Where the simplicity of Foursquare is just checking in to a location, SCVNGR allows you to instigate challenges, do an activity, solve a riddle, or, as you guessed it, scan a QR code.  SCVNGR encourages you to build your own “treks.” The app is free, so anyone with an iPhone or Android-powered phone (2.1 and above) can participate. They offer a handy style guide to building a trek.

Although you can have your scavenger hunters follow a particular path and order, realize that all locations are known in advance. At each location, the hunters will do a task: answer a quiz question, scan a QR code, take a photo, you name it. Each completed task comes with points, and people can compete with their friends.

Think of a collaborative Chicago storefront theater scavenger hunt, perhaps sponsored by the Chicago Tribune, or an Austin theater/ bike scavenger hunt sponsored by the Bicycle Sport Shop. Rather than one organization trying to pull this off, reach out to your entire network for support. Consider weaving the story of your production into the story of the hunt.

The Logistics of QR codes

You’re going to need to create the QR code:

  • Kaywa is dead simple
  • Goog.le allows you append .qr to any Google short link
  • Stickybits, while still a traditional barcode, simplifies the process to a $10 book of stickers

Then you need to be able to “read” the QR code:

  • Most Android and Blackberry phones have the functionality built in
  • Popular apps for iPhone users are i-nigma and QuickMark

And you’ll want to consider the type of content you’re encoding. There’s a limit to the number of characters or bits per square inch of QR code, but could include a URL (and therefore any manner of multi-media posted online), email address, telephone number, vCard contact information, geo-tag coordinates, iCal invitation, or just about anything else you could capture in under roughly 5,000 alpha-numeric characters—even the text to a postcard play.

More mobile marketing

Augmented Reality apps offer another innovative approach to mobile marketing.

One well-known app is Layar. Here’s a great video of augmented reality at a music festival. Marc would love to see the Chicago History Museum recreate the Columbian Exposition in augmented reality… imagine staring through your phone at the White City, circa 1900!

Google Goggles is another AR app. It’s basically visual search; take a photo with your camera and Google does a search for it, whether it be a product, logo, landmark, or building.

The Future of QR Codes

Don’t get us wrong, QR codes are not mainstream. But now that you know what they are, you’ll likely start to notice them in your neighborhood. QR codes are a high tech bit of gadgetry with a very low cost of implementation. While they currently appeal to a small subset of the population, it’s not hard to imagine that five years from now they will be embedded in our daily life. Why bother with all that typing when all you have to do is snap a photo. Why not append digital information to a physical object. Why not impress your audience with a bit of futuristic wizardry.

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  • Offline, we’ve been talking about the storytelling potential of Layar’s layers since at least March. The idea of telling a story throughout your city/neighborhood/community using video, text and audio that’s accessed via the augmented reality of Layar on your phone is just exciting.

    Another thing we’ve talked about, especially in our conference videos, has been the idea of using all of these–Layar, SCVNGR, Foursquare and more–as ways not only to connect to your audience but to bring them to your sponsors’ businesses as well. How simple would it be to design your trek to visit sponsors and perform tasks or check in or even compete to become mayor of the sponsors’ business at a certain time on a certain date? Now, you’re not just telling a story or entertaining your audiences, you’re providing extra value to your sponsors and physically bringing them through those doors as well.

    Another great example of QR codes is on the permanent exhibits at the 21c Museum Hotel in Louisville. This was also the site of a wonderful, interactive, meandering play at last spring’s Humana Festival at Actors Theatre of Louisville. How long until we put all of these ideas together?

    There’s so much potential to tap here, and some of us are trying to tap it…

  • Thanks for the post, Devon and Marc! We included QR codes in the program of our last show. One led to a mobile-friendly video of our playwright talking about the show the other to an easy audience survey. Gave those smartphone-obsessed audience members something to do more than leaf through the program during pre-show.

    Caveat: the cell phone reception in the space was minimal at best, so the codes couldn’t always be used to their fullest extent unfortunately. Though cell phone dampening is usually a plus for a theatre space.

  • Keith Beck

    As with all technology its always hurry up apply the technology first ask questions later.

    The only people who can use new technology are always the people who can’t afford to pay for the ticket or knew how to access the right code for a huge discount on the internet. These are usually the same people who have no problem reading a cell phone screen with the pt3 font. Frustrating! No Q & A testing – No game plan to measure how much additional funding this may or may not pull in. How much time effort and energy this action takes away from creating a human theater experience. And!! its marketed to the demographic that provides the least amount of charitable donations. Doesn’t anyone ever ask the question ok now what do I do with this crazy black and white postage stamp! I get someone to go to my website instantly when they see my show. Is that really the best we can do? For Pete’s sake! COPY WHAT THE CAPATLISTIC REPUBLICAN BASED MONEY MONGERING CORPORATIONS THAT ARE USING THE STAMPS ARE DOING!!

    Take them to a site that requests an action. Buy a T-shirt, coffee mug, autographed cast copy of the program – poster – script – invite the patron to an exclusive party but they can only come if they bring someone over 50! ( These are the Build a virtual Marquee a pixel at a time and charge 1.99 a pixel. Have a plan for the tech. if you don’t have a plan all you have done is taught someone to be comfortable with a new technology. You have entertained that patron – kept the persons focus away from the set, and the program. You are diluting the focus of the experience of theater

    • Some might not have a game plan. That’s why we’re here, to show the possibilities.

      I don’t see this as distracting from the programs. I see it as replacing them entirely. Instead of a program, what if we were green and gave patrons a bookmark–an artifact of the evening that they’re more likely to keep and use later–which has a QR code on the back. That code leads to a virtual program, which includes donation options, merchandise specific to the show, links to sponsors, all the program information, and all of it accessible after the fact. Think of the money we’d save in printing. Think of the trees we’d save, and the points we’d earn from patrons for going green.

      You can use QR codes in your mailings, leading to special video trailers not accessible otherwise. These would also include links to sponsors–for which sponsors would pay.

      You can include them on tickets to act as coupons for other sponsors, which again brings in a fee from the sponsor.

      You can use the codes to lead to clues tied to a larger SCVNGR game, which again leads to sponsors’ businesses, which leads to more sponsorship money.

      You could even use one to link to a video asking people to turn off their cell phones before the show starts.

      This is all just scratching the surface. Yes, we’d be getting patrons comfortable with new technology. But we’d be doing it on our terms, creating added entertainment value, giving them additional–and easier–options for donating money on the spot, building more potential spots for sponsors to buy advertising and saving money on printed materials that would most likely be thrown away.

      • Keith beck

        I hear another tree saving story I am gonna puke! How about this lets create tools for the patrons to use and whatever tree we nuke – we can go plant a seed or donate to lumberjacks to grow an extra redwood for the theater. Jesus! Whatever gets cut gets replaces 2 sometimes 3 to 1. The tree lovers would have a much better argument with paper is expensive and from a cost perspective we can only afford Black and White. ( ok way off topic) All of your ideas are great and that is the problem too many ideas to be successfull at all of them. Its like acting can you play 2 emotions at the same time successfully NO. each one should get its own beat no matter how small.

        ONE IDEA – You can include them on tickets to act as coupons for other sponsors, which again brings in a fee from the sponsor.

        Work this one thru

        How many sponsors ( sell mass appeal like the back of a grocery receipt but if you look at that closely the sponsors repeat) so how do you sell that to a sponsor

        What coupon for your sponsor works best. 2 for 1 or % discount

        Can you cross promote with another show in town to provide a way to get your name in the hands of someone who actually goes to theater.

        How long does the promotion last?

        Can you put the concept in a pitch book to sell to other companies or local sponsors.

        Can you write the script (opps sorry ) sales presentation to present this concept to the people who can write a check.

        Once you complete the steps above can you memorialize the process so that it is repeatable and you can move onto another one of the ideas to break down and implement.

        Does this sound like a business plan yes – is it painful sometimes. but
        We have been doing it (this crap just tossing ideas around ) on our own terms and where has that gotten us? Very few small companies that grow into big companies and many small companies that died working hard to do it on their terms.

        • Well, yes, we have worked through these ideas beyond what’s posted here. But if we explained them more thoroughly in public, no one would need to hire any of us as consultants.

          Most small companies haven’t been doing this or anything like it on their own terms. They’ve been doing the same things over and over. Postcards, programs, posters. Maybe print ads. Maybe radio, if they’re lucky.

          But I don’t think this is “too many ideas.” They’re ideas to pick and choose from; I’m not saying “do all of them.” That said, it wouldn’t be difficult–the ideas in my earlier comment take advantage of work that’s already being done. You’re already compiling program info, you’re already making promotional videos, you’re already courting sponsors. Your advertising will be more effective if it’s consistent across any and all media you advertise with–it doesn’t cost anything to add a QR code onto your card, poster, print ad, whatever. Sure, it’s easier for a larger theatre to do this–larger museums are already trying some of these ideas–but they’re simple enough to implement that a small theatre could try them without much trouble.

          How do you sell a sponsor on this? Simple. It’s not a print ad, it’s a commercial with a direct link to their website, no waiting. That’s exponentially more valuable than a picture on the back of a receipt. For an extra fee, the theatre could even make the commercial. Add the game component into it, now you’re actively getting people to walk in their door, people whose reason for being there is directly traceable to theatre sponsorship…but that’s getting into the consulting territory again…

          • Keith.beck

            Sorry thought you represented a smaller theater – Not a consultant – Gotta make a living so it makes sense to keep things close to the vest until you get a contract. For the Bigger theaters QR code works for a smaller company – they must build on what works for them and IMO a smaller company would have much better success going in a 1/2 radius knocking on doors and inviting the community to a special community preview at a reduced price. vs. listening to the whispers in the house of how people can’t get the code to load on their phone.

  • I’m writing this from Germany with a heavy jetlag, so I don’t take responsibility for what follows.

    Keith, I don’t see any problem first experimenting a bit with new technologies. That doesn’t mean dumping all your resources into every new technology, but testing the waters doesn’t hurt. That’s the great thing about these new things, they allow for mini experiments (just think about tweaking you AdWords campaign word by word to find out what maximizes click-throughs and conversions).

    Once you’ve found it’s a fit for your organization and you’re ready to invest in a particular tool or technology, yes, you should have a plan. And the plan needs to fit in with your overall (marketing) strategy.

    And I put marketing in parentheses because it doesn’t necessarily have to involve marketing. You seem to focus much on the monetary aspects of results. Although financial support is important, theater companies are nonprofits with a mission. How can these new technologies help with your mission?

    We can evaluate our social media / new technology efforts with more than just financial measures. The Communications Network published a good guide: Are We There Yet. I wrote a series of posts based on the guide for arts orgs: http://mcmvanbree.com/dutchperspective/evaluating-social-media-for-classical-music-organizations

    Lastly, these technologies are complementary, not a replacement necessarily. Direct marketing is still very effective (however annoying); and you’re right, knocking on doors is probably much more successful, but also much more costly. It’s all about measuring and evaluating and putting your money and resources where the results are.

  • Keith Beck

    How can knocking on doors be more costly? Unless the price of shoe leather has gone up

    • Easy. Time = Money. How many man-hours does it take to advertise by knocking on doors, versus how many man-hours does it take to update Twitter occasionally, post a new event on Facebook, or add a QR code to your programs (that you were going to print out anyway)?

      • Keith Beck

        The argument of time = Money specific to technology is weak. Unless you have a benchmark to measure the success or failure of a social networking campaign specific to the target demographic and the specific level of success once attained – the Time = money analogy while making a good sound bite is hollow. How much time will be invested hiding behind a netbook that could have been spent shaking hand in front of the local grocery, train station or airport. We need to collectively copy what politicians and big business do. It works for them why is the theatrical community always willing to mail, but is more then willing to emote like crazy in front of a bunch of strangers but when it comes to pressing the flesh one on one – Time is money arghhh!! very very frustrating.

        • I would never claim QR codes or other technology can outpace personal salesmanship, knocking on doors, shaking hands. But time IS money, there’s nothing weak about that argument.

          You could, of course, simply compare the time it takes to use the QR codes with, let’s say, five handshakes and measure the difference in impact.

          If we would go by your arguments, we would only go out and shake hands and not buy keywords for Google Adwords, for example. Because shaking hands receives a 50% return, and AdWords only a 2% return. But shaking hands costs a lot of staff time (and definitely hand sanitizer among the resources). AdWords costs significantly less staff time and only a couple of cents per click.

          Now, shaking hands might still be more cost effective. But all these things have to complement each other, not replace one or the other. And just as shaking hands with someone has both long and short term effects, so do these engagement campaigns on social media and through technology.

  • If you are tech savvy and want a QR code on your business card, you can create them at http://www.businesscardqrcode.com/

  • Just wanted to mention a new example of a brand using foursquare + stickybits to engage customers on a scavenger hunt:
    http://mashable.com/2010/09/08/reggie-bush-redzones/. And in an ironic twist on the Lion King mention in the post, a contact at Situation Marketing mentioned that the Lion King on broadway will be doing a take over of Penn Station featuring QR codes next month. We’ll see how it plays out, and I’ll try to get pics.

    I think the above discussion has played itself out, but I will say that QR codes are far less time consuming than Facebook & Twitter, and are basically free (sans the nominal cost of copier paper perhaps). QR codes also offer audience members to engage with the brand temporarily, as well as temporally; both of which can be difficult with traditional social media in the theatre. Because QR codes aren’t necessarily social. They’re simply a new way to get information; and with this new way comes new possibilities for audience engagement.

    • Keith.beck

      Devon, while I agree with the premise of the QR code – it needs some level of instruction to be effective, it has to be seem-less and must provide value added and should provide a ROI or the noise that is created – the buzz has less of a true viral effect. That game plan should be thought out clearly and with care. While QR codes may not be social for those who know what they are and what they do – to anyone not in the loop they are beyond foreign its literally a foreign language. Unless you speak the language the ability to allow yourself to be engaged as an audience member may seem from some to be alot less a positive experience and more of a mutant big brother or 1984 type of perspective and experience – think the old phrase used to be “if it don’t play in Peoria its not gonna work anywhere it would be interesting to see QR codes function in the heartland or downstate of Chicago. .

      • I don’t know about Peoria, but it’s playing pretty well in Cleveland: http://google.com/trends?q=%22qr+code%22&ctab=0&geo=us&date=all&sort=0. 10 times as well in fact in the past year. Of course you have to take care to explain the introduction of something new to your audience–whether it be a change in curtain time, or a new way to find information. But I wouldn’t be so sure to dismiss the possibility that the audience can learn quite quickly.

  • Keith Beck

    The adoption of new technology is indeed faster for people in specific demographics but the true rate of adoption is not the same for all participants.

    Looking at the objective of the disruptive technology is the additional information provided merely adding to the noise? Does the content increase the “Q” ratio (likability of the product). Does the matrix or noise seen or unseen provide to the author an ROI in terms of ticket sales or donations.

    Would the work / effort of the implementation of the disruptive technology be more successful to the user if the user had a strong plan of action for its implementation? I think the interesting experiment would be to seek categories of response and requested action from specific demographics and see what ultimately provides new or disruptive results.

    Example –

    Typically Over 40’s
    1. donate more more money to 501c3 then under 40’s
    2. provide charitable IRA contributions then under 40’s
    3. purchase multiple tickets (subscriptions) then under 40’s

    Typically under 40’s
    1. Attend more bar / party event driven fund raisers
    2. Pay an average lower ticket cost / online access to various discount venues
    3. Interface and know more cast and production members

    How can we collectively use social media tools like QR codes to disrupt these entrenched patterns. What If the patterns as mentioned above could be integrated or flipped with the help of social media. What would be the ultimate benefit to the collective work of the theater?

    1. Would the average price of a ticket would increase
    2. Would donations both initial and legacy donors increase
    3. Would the personal audience connection to our collective work be stronger and dare I say brand defining and loyal?.

    The concern we should all have is to not end up like a baby sitting in a wadding pool splashing furiously and not going anywhere but merely content with enjoying getting ourselves wet and the adults around the pool all wet. I think its safe to say unless the kid belongs to you splashing in that pool the patience of getting bombarded by water from a strange baby while funny in the moment has never been an experience that anyone would actively seek to repeat.

    Might be a poor analogy but being spammed and accosted by cell, smart phone and internet intimacy consistently by SMS, QR coding, Blogging, Tweeting, Profiling, Facebooking, etc. The effort to inform can become like a bunch of water hitting me from all directions. Its too much and the audience retreats from the water or cocoons (Faith Popcorn trends analysis).

    Ok this got way longer then I wanted to be sorry.

  • Awesome.

    If you want to see some beautiful #qrcode art, check out this company QrArts. They create branded codes that go far beyond the black and white.

  • bobbell2

    QR code (abbreviated from Quick Response Code) is the trademark for a type of matrix barcode (or two-dimensional barcode) first designed for the automotive industry in Japan.
    A barcode is a machine-readable optical label that contains information about the item to which it is attached. A QR code uses four
    standardized encoding modes (numeric, alphanumeric, byte / binary, and kanji) to efficiently store data; extensions may also be used.
    I want to more about qrcodes,so i google it and find some introduction of it in wikipedia:

  • Stevensen Liu

    Hey this is a pretty cool template. Thanks!


  • Stevensen Liu