A recent television ad put out by a national electronics retailer pokes fun at how quickly technology is advancing. In the commercial, a restaurant patron using a laptop computer spits out his coffee when he sees a newspaper ad for "The even newer laptop." And a woman with a smartphone looks aghast at a billboard declaring "It's newer than your phone!" Technology is indeed moving fast, and not just for consumers. One of the key challenges we face as marketers today is keeping abreast of evolving technology and offering our own customers the multiple channels they are looking for to engage with our brands.

    According to a recent survey by The Pew Research Center, nearly half of all American adults, or 47%, get real-time information on their mobile phone or tablet computer. Thirty-seven percent reported getting information about restaurants or other local businesses on their phones or tablets. Smartphones are increasingly becoming an integral part of our daily lives. Many people don't leave home without them and view their smartphones as a very personal device.

    One of the newest and most intriguing ways we can enhance the traditional power of direct mail is by offering our customers with smartphones an immediate call to action - Quick Response Codes, or QR Codes. These two-dimensional barcodes can feature URLs that drive users from printed material to the Web via mobile devices. QR Codes can turn a printed direct mail piece into an instant interactive mobile response, allowing static messages to become a hyperlink to just about anything online.

    Turning Static Print to an Interactive Response
    The process of using a QR Code is simple: A smartphone user with a pre-loaded QR Code reader installed can quickly scan a barcode on a direct mail piece and be immediately taken to online content without having to type in a Web address. QR Codes are commonplace in Japan and have picked up a lot of momentum in the United States in just this past year. In addition to direct mail, QR Codes are now appearing in magazines and on billboards, product packages and store shelves. The codes provide a great call-to-action that takes advantage of the growth in smartphone use. Mobio Identity Systems Inc., a mobile payments company, reported that QR Code scanning in the last six months of 2010 increased 1,200% across North America.

    Personalize the Message
    On a direct mail piece, a QR Code could be embedded with a personalized URL (PURL). A PURL provides a Web address for an individual so that the content at the address can be unique for that visitor. A business could create unique QR Codes with PURLs for everyone on its direct mail list. Once on a PURL microsite, a visitor may be invited to sign up for monthly newsletters, view a video or request a mailed fulfillment package. They can share as much or as little contact information as they desire. Additionally, the online interaction can be tracked, making it easier to measure in terms of campaign ROI. These personalized Web addresses can, of course, be directly put on a direct mail piece in conjunction with a QR Code, giving the recipient the choice of either manually typing in the PURL into a Web browser or using their smartphone to quickly scan the QR Code to see the online content.

    Use Email and Texts in the Campaign
    Email and SMS mobile text messaging can also be integrated into the multi-touch marketing campaign. For example, a consumer receives a traditional postal direct mail piece that includes a QR Code. She scans the QR Code with her smartphone and is immediately linked to a microsite optimized for mobile that offers information she is specifically interested in. Once on this microsite, she may find anything from an invitation to sign up for a monthly e-newsletter to an embedded video to downloadable coupons. Then, shortly after she visits the microsite, she receives an email or SMS text response thanking her for visiting the site. Based on information she chose to share while at the microsite, she may receive an additional direct mail piece, text or social media notification as a follow up to the product or service she expressed interest in.

    Intelligent Mail Tracking
    QR Codes can help us track useful information for our campaigns. We can analyze which QR Codes are being scanned the most to determine what offers are working the best, and in which geographical area they are being scanned in. This information could help develop the next campaign. Additionally, utilizing intelligent mail tracking available through the United States Postal Service's CONFIRM enables marketers to electronically determine the progress of their mailing through the postal system. Delivery alerts then make it possible for a marketer to notify customers via email or a mobile text message to expect a personalized package in the mail, sparking curiosity.

    Combining direct mail and QR Codes can also save time and money. Rather than having to pay for business reply mail and waiting for the post office to return the information, customers can be directed to respond online in real-time, through social media outlets, or traditional mail, depending on the preference of the customer. By giving customers choices to efficiently communicate and participate in a campaign, the more likely they are to say yes' to an offer.

    A point of caution: While the use of QR Codes is on the rise in many places, there still may be a level of unfamiliarity within your target audience. When including a QR Code as a call-to-action on a direct mail piece, provide brief, easy-to-understand directions of how to use it. Consider adding a website URL where a user could download a QR Code-reader for their phone.

    And be sure to give consumers a good reason to scan the code. The printed direct mail piece will certainly carry information, but the code can enhance that by taking people to a video where they can watch case studies or see a demonstration.

    Combining the power of direct mail and online digital content, QR Codes are helping to make integrated marketing more effective than ever. QR Codes are, for good reason, one of the hottest applications in marketing today. Easy to track and offering an immediate response mechanism that catches your customer at the very moment of interest, QR Codes are creating a whole new generation of direct mail.

    David Henkel is president of Johnson and Quin, located in Niles, Illinois. Johnson & Quin is a national leader in integrated direct marketing solutions. He can be reached at dhenkel_@_J-QUIN.com.