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Five ways journalists can use QR Codes

by Lauren M. Rabaino

Today there has been a lot of buzz on Twitter about Amy Webb’s Ultimate QR Code Game that will be ongoing during the Online News Association Conference, which got me thinking about how else journalists can use QR Codes.

So maybe we should back up a second — QR (Quick Response) codes, according to Wikipedia:

A matrix barcode (or two-dimensional code), readable by QR scanners, mobile phones with a camera, and smartphones. The code consists of black modules arranged in a square pattern on white background. The information encoded can be text, URL or other data.

A simpler explanation from WebbMedia’s QR Tipsheet:

Two-dimensional barcodes can be encoded with various data (phone numbers, text, photos, URLs, etc.) and “scanned” using the camera on a mobile phone. Think of them as print hyperlinks.

So anyone with a smart phone at ONA10 can extract data from these codes placed around the conference and win prizes. That’s all fun and dandy, but beyond games and prizes, how can journalists take it a step further to share information and tell stories? These are a few of my ideas.

1. Location-relevant information

A lot of news organizations (The Wall Street Journal, for example) are using Foursquare as a way of conveying location-based information. It’s simple. Check in somewhere, get tips via Foursquare. QR codes can serve the same purpose if placed on or near popular structures, monuments, works of art, etc. — kind of like Easter eggs within communities. The QR Code model would work a little differently, though. Instead of checking in and getting information delivered to you, you would seek out information based on a particular spot or item.

What if scanning a QR Code at the airport launched a site on your phone that gave you realtime, curated tweets, blog posts and news coverage on what’s going on at your airport? What if scanning a QR code at the courthouse gave you a news org’s curated coverage of latest issues at the courthouse?

2. On your business card.

Sure, you’ve heard this one before and probably even seen it in action. But as a journalist interacting with people in your community on a regular basis, being open and transparent with readers about how to get ahold of you is vital. By allowing them to scan a QR code in, you can make yourself more conveniently accessible to your readers.

3. City-guided tours

This one is especially relevant in tourist-heavy cities or to publications on college campuses. When I was in Boston in July, I played the Boston Globe Trek through SCVNGR which allowed me to scan QR Codes on various newsstands throughout the city to get information about that location. As a first-time visitor to the city, I was able to hit popular spots and complete tasks to win points using nothing but my iPhone.

My criticism of the hunt was that it wasn’t particular useful for helping me learn about the city (although, because I’m a geek, it was still fun). If a news organization used SCVNGR or a self-created app to host their own tours of the city with interesting, engaging information, there’s also a potential underlying revenue opportunity whereby partnerships with local businesses can serve as incentivization for completing the tour.

4. Submitting news tips

Imagine putting QR code on every major intersection in your town. Then, people casually walking around who want to submit news tips can scan a QR code, which opens up the email address and phone number on a “Submit News Tip” form. That form is sent directly to the reporter for that beat.

For example, if you’re at your kids’ elementary school, the contact info from the QR code is sent to the education beat reporter. Sports bloggers could put up their own QR codes at local high school football stadiums and community golf courses for users to submit their kids’ scores and photos to the blog. For each submission via QR Code, there could also be a list of recently-submitted tips from that code, so you can see who else was there and what they cared about.

5. Information-oriented scavenger hunts.

Much like the city-guided tours, this one isn’t new either. In fact, I’ve seen this as the biggest use case for QR Codes at conferences and tech events, but not in the context of storytelling. So let’s add the context of storytelling: Imagine if you could create an educational, interactive experience for your readers by taking them through a timeline of a historical event in their community? Participants could guess answers to questions and be lead to the next spot, where they would learn a new fact before heading to the next location. Those who complete the scavenger hunt could be featured in a community section on the website or get a prize from a local business (another potential revenue opportunity).

Resources for gettin’ it done

SCVNGR: “A game about doing challenges at places.” The Boston Globe Trek referenced earlier in this post used this app for their city tour challenge.

Kaywa: A QR Code generator that allows you to associate a URL, text, phone number or SMS message with your code.

WebbMedia’s QR Code Tipsheet: What’s a QR code? WebbMedia explains all.

QR Reader apps:

There are use cases for both big metro papers, small community papers and niche bloggers. The drawback here, of course, is that this might be too high-tech for a lot of readers. Not everyone is as geeky as us. But as QR codes become more commonplace, providers of news have a huge ability in leading the way with this cool tool.

Amy Webb’s QR contest at ONA will hopefully get journalists thinking more about potential uses. If you haven’t signed up to play it, do so on the WebbMedia site by scanning one of the barcodes on the top right.

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