31 03 2011

The digital world war between Facebook and Google just escalated again. The duo has been firing nuclear warheads at each other for some time now, but most recently FB has been making inroads in the battle for supremacy. All that’s needed is for FB to master search, or Google to figure out social. Whoever gets there first will rule the world.

Google’s introduction yesterday of +1 represents yet another attempt to crack the social egg (Google Wave and Google Buzz being earlier failed efforts). It’s Google’s answer to the ubiquitous Facebook Like button, which now appears on over 2 million sites.

The Like button allows users to instantly show their affectations toward a site, as well as share on their Wall. +1 works from a slightly different angle, though, being linked primarily to search, and to a lesser extent, actual sites.

Here’s how it works. Google users who opt-in to the service (you must be logged in first to your Google account), can go here to activate the feature. All subsequent search results will feature a small +1 icon beside the text result (not to mention the ads). If you really like the result, simply click to icon to add it to your profile.

And you will forever be linked to that web content.

Google also plans to start offering the +1 icon to individual sites, much like the FB Like button. Over time, your profile will yield a rich harvest of content you deem relevant.

Whoa, pardner! You just said something important there. Yes, your profile will be loaded with your likes (hmmm…too bad they don’t have a -1 button, just like FB could use a Dislike).

And therein lies the value of +1 to Google: while they already track searches (and click-throughs) from your searches, adding that extra layer of affinity reveals something about you. What’s in it for us? Not a whole lot, other than knowing your Google Profile is slowly beginning to reflect more of you.

Heck, I forgot I even had a Google Profile.

Google is betting that we will see the social value in this, and will happily be willing to demonstrate our good taste, prescience and general know-it-allness by merrily clicking +1 every time we see something we like. Rather than this showing up on the social graph dominated by FB, it will instead appear in Google’s competing universe. When others get a search result we have already added, they can see that we have done so. And Google has even better data about us from which it can use to sell more targeted advertising.

It’s a calculated move, and maybe even one of slight desperation, but Google needs to get into the social game. It is terribly late to the party, but not for lack of knocking on doors. Too bad they were banging on the wrong ones. Google is betting that search is still more important to us at the end of the day, and it is from that platform we will want to socialize.

And Facebook, of course, argues it is from the social graph from which we want to search.

It’s an interesting battle, and the perspectives are 180-opposites. Truthfully, both companies will probably thrive and last long into the future doing what they do best, but the battle is for our eyeballs. Because eyeballs attract advertisers. And advertisers mean revenue. Lots of it.

Go ahead and Like that. Or +1 it. Either way, it’s a result that is as certain as the sun rising in the east. And our lives becoming just a little more transparent. Is that a bullseye I see on your forehead?

Dr “Ready. Aim. Fire!” Gerlich

Master Of Your Domain

30 03 2011

Ever since the opening of the internet to corporate and personal identities way back in the early-90s, there has been a gold rush going on. At first, it was simple to names to be found and secured, mostly because the entire lexicon of the English language (along with all brands and company names) was available.

But that quickly changed, with nearly every 6-letter or fewer word from the language being gobbled up by someone. Domains were purchased and held for ransom by cybersquatters (case in point: Amarillo.com was owned by a downstate person, who eventually sold it to the Globe-News for about $14,000). No could imagine in those early years how important domain names would eventually be.

Or how scarce they would become.

While we had .com, .org (generally speaking, for non-profits) and .net (normally for networks, like internet services providers), those names quickly ran out. ICANN (the Internet Corporations for Assigned Names and Numbers) slowly added other TLDs (top-level domains) to help ease the crunch, like .biz and .info, as well as the recent .us. But just try to find an available domain these days. Nearly always it involves a very strange agglomeration of words or phrases, or, more commonly, intentional misspellings.

But now, in a very strange twist, we are sitting on the eve of a new TLD that may very well unleash a new land grab in a flurry of possibly hundreds of TLDs.

And this momentous occasion is the opening of the .xxx domain. Yes, now porn sites will have their own domain. Nothing like truth in advertising (now I just hope that all porn sites migrate away from the dotcoms we so commonly land on accidentally).

You see, ICANN is now about to open the floodgates for countless new TLDs like .brand, .yourcity, etc. In other words, the domain extension will become part of the brand itself. Furthermore, when .brand launches, it will be tightly regulated to ensure there are no cybersquatters scooping up registered trademarks.

Whereas fifteen years ago few could ever envision a day in which domain names would be scarce (kind of like no one foresaw the scarcity of telephone numbers…but that was before everyone had a cell phone), we are now faced with the reality that far more entities want or need their own private online handle. And as new businesses emerge, they, too, will have naming needs.

The biggest downside to all of this is that established brands will still feel the need to run out and buy every single variant on their name, and on every new domain. Too many companies found out the hard way that they needed to scoop up the .org and .net (along with the .com) simply to protect themselves from malicious pranksters and critics. This problem is made all too clear by none other than our very own White House (don’t go there…unless you select whitehouse.gov). How embarrassing to hear from your customers that your company name has been subverted by a porn operator or someone who has an axe to grind.

The other problem with TLD proliferation is that we have been long accustomed to defaulting to the .com. In other words, companies will have to work hard to educate us to not absent-mindedly entering .com, and instead keying in .brand. While fifteen years is by no means a long stretch of time, we are creatures of habit. And our habit is .com.

Still, ICANN is to be credited for finally realizing that we need more options. Just like with phone numbers (if you knew how area codes were originally assigned, you would laugh), there is a finite amount of choices. While the world can handle as many John Smiths as it wants, the internet cannot.

The biggest irony, though, is that it took racy adult entertainment sites getting their own TLD to finally awaken ICANN to this reality.

Ladies and gentlemen, grab your credit card and be ready to pounce on your favorite name(s) as it (they) become available. Because there really is a lot in a name. And we have the entire dictionary as our sandbox. You name it.

Dr “ImWithThe.Brand” Gerlich

The 411 On You

29 03 2011

Once upon a time, our lives were fairly private affairs. Unless you were willing to visit countless public offices, it was all but impossible to gather information about individuals (e.g., marriages, births, taxes, etc.). The grapevine was pretty much the only source of information, yet was fraught with error and exaggeration. Or you could risk arrest by opening your neighbor’p;s mail.

Not anymore. Today, the data mining industry is thriving, mostly in part to our own willingness to share facts we once deemed TMI for general consumption. Privacy is a lock to which we have freely shared the key.

Take a look at this video from the folks at Reputation.com



A recent Time Magazine article by Joel Stein demonstrates just how much information is easily and publicly available. Our lives are open books, and anyone is free to flip the pages.

It was bound to happen to some degree anyway, given online databases and shopping. But social networking has made it much easier still to harvest information. Remember that game or app you just added to your FB account? The Terms of Service Agreement probably stipulated that you agreed to share not only your information, but also that of your friends.

Yikes. Every one of my Farmville-playing friends has sold me out. While we can individually tighten down the screws on our FB security, each time any one of our friends adds a new feature to their FB experience, they drag us along with them.

It’s kind of like leaving the key under the mat, but putting a note on the door to let the burglars (UPS man, religious proselytizer, entire neighborhood) know.

Still, the amount (and types) of information we willingly share is quite revealing. The ages and genders of children and spouses. Phone numbers. Email addresses. Vacation plans. Dining preferences.

Toss in the enormous amount of data collected by our cellphone carrier and the apps we install, and it’s easy to see why data miners are salivating. Then consider mobile payment apps like the one Google is introducing. Now they’re foaming.

Which means that transparency is the new black, whether or not we want to wear it. There is no place to hide; the citizen has no clothes.

While Reputation.com’s video is certainly alarming, we must remember that they are marketers. They are trying to sell us something. Actually, they are trying to scare the daylights out of us. And, for a fee, they will try to help us.

Anyone with half an ounce of internet savvy can do this themselves. I need not pay $129/year for the basic service to find out what others can find out about me by doing simple searches. And I definitely don’t need to pay $699 for the special treatment, which really amounts to nothing more than them hosting a bunch of your personal bios. You know…kind of like gaming the search engine industry so that the stuff you post about yourself will float to the top.

Hmmm. I bet I could do that myself, and in about a couple of hours max.

The best bet for all of us is to be better managers of our public selves, and not be freaked out by scaremongering videos like this one. Yes, it is much easier these days for anyone to distill information about us, but that doesn’t mean it was never available in the first place. As Joel Stein found out, his story (give or take a few factual errors) is out there for everyone to find. So is mine. And yours. I just accept that fact, and do the best to release what I want others to know. OK, what I wouldn’t mind being plastered across the entire internet.

Because at the end of the day, we are still in control of who we are. We just have to be more careful. And I stake my reputation on that.

Dr “Search Me” Gerlich

Google Wants To Be In Your Wallet

28 03 2011

It is a foregone conclusion that Google is wiggled its way inside our brains. Now it want to bury itself in our wallets. Coming soon to an Android nexus S phone near you, the new Google-Visa-MasterCard app will let you go completely cash- and plastic-less.

And if this sounds a little bit like something I stressed the need for last week, well go ahead and congratulate me on my prescience. I suppose it was inevitable, though, so it was kind of like me saying it’s going to be hot and sunny this summer in Texas.

Still, I am thrilled to see the US making such rapid progress in mobile payments. We are truly far behind much of the developed world in this area, and we need to catch up.

Now what, you are wondering, is Google doing in the money and banking business? Are they itching to open a bank or something?

No, of course not. They really couldn’t care less about credit card processing, payment gateways, etc. No, what they want to be able to track is every nickel you spend. You know, just like they know your entire search history.

Now just imagine the push notifications that will occur on your cell phone. Just bought some Pampers? Be prepared for an onslaught of kid-focused product messages. Or did you buy Depends? Still diapers, but now you’ll be getting ads for AARP.

Yeah, scary, isn’t it? Google already sells bazillions of dollars in targeted advertising every year, and now it hopes to fill the cash drawer a few times over. While search may represent interest and potential purchase, and thus worthy of Google’s attention, the act of making the transaction is priceless. Now it’s a done deal.

Think about it. If search symbolizes interest and possible intent, actual purchase is the pot of gold at rainbow’s end. It is the terminus of the consumer behavior train. It is that information that Google covets from each and every one of us.

Unfortunately, this new venture is limited to only the forthcoming Nexus S phone (Android, of course). But I suspect the floodgates have been opened, and soon there will be apps for every smartphone available, and soon we will be paying by phone. And here’s a new acronym for you to memorize: NFC (near Field Communications). It’s what enables a phone app to pay the bill as it passes within proximity of a scanner.

There are also rumors afoot that PayPal is working up their own payment app, one that can be used to “bump” another phone to exchange currency. Imagine being out for dinner with friends, and having to split the bill. A quick bump and everyone can settle up.

The days are numbered for my George Costanza-like billfold. No longer will I sit at an angle. No more will my lower back hurt. Go ahead and analyze me, Google. I’ve got nothing to hide. Besides, Visa and MC already know what I buy. You’re just wanting in on the action. Have at it.

Dr “End Of The Paper Trail” Gerlich

Selling Me Softly

27 03 2011

Imagine a world in which everyone is a salesperson, whether they realize it or not. Everything you own, drive or wear is for sale, and you are the spokesperson. There might not be any price tags or cash registers, but you are an ipso facto agent for the manufacturers and vendors of all that you possess.

And in this world, ever one of us is also a customer, armed with the ability to scrutinize our peers, even total strangers, taking our fashion cues and then buying as we see fit.

Making all of this happen is an electronic device equipped with an RFID (Radio Frequency ID) reader, along with each and every product having a miniature RFID tag embedded within. We send. We read. We scan. We buy. Silent Commerce.

“All the world’s indeed a stage and we are merely players, performers and portrayers” (Limelight, by Rush). Sound scary? Think it could happen? Apparently Accenture does, too, except that they postulated this Real-World Showroom quite a few years ago. The showroom is wherever we are.

The now-laughable part of the equation is that Accenture envisioned this all taking place with…wait for it…PDAs. You know…Palm Pilots. That’s so early-21C.

Of course, we’ve all pushed our PDAs to the back of the center drawer, and have replaced them with smartphones. And while Accenture’s dream sequence never quite materialized the way they saw it, I think their idea is actually still very much alive and well. The only difference is that I have no doubt there will soon be an RFID app for our iPhones and Androids, or, better yet, a camera app that is able to identify products with razor-sharp precision, then whisk us off to a mobile commerce site to contemplate the purchase.

Wait…this is beginning to sound like Google Goggles, except that it hasn’t been fully developed to handle such a high level of commerce. Goggles is a huge leap forward, but it stumbles when it comes time to actually make the sale.

Which is to say that Accenture was actually very prescient in their vision of a store without walls. They just didn’t get the technology completely right, mostly because we were still using 10-key cell phones back then.

If I had my druthers, I would opt for this to all happen without RFID, and just improved visual apps. But given the similarity of so many items, it may be impossible to differentiate between items. For example, my Google Goggles test this morning with a bottle of Jones Cream Soda returned both the Jones site and also images of stop signs (because that’s the photo on the soda bottle label). Close, but no cigar. I really don’t want to buy a stop sign.

RFID, of course, carries with it far darker prospects, because each tag is really a transmitter. And RFID readers could be deployed in a multitude of situations to scan our persons, our homes, our cars. That’s a little spooky, but I will not be the least bit surprised if, in this decade, every consumer item comes with an RFID chip. Drivers licenses and passports already do, and you didn’t even notice.

Let us not forget also that, whether with a better Goggles or with RFID, we will all become transparent. There would be no hiding your cheap underwear, private label jeans, or, conversely, the $480 jeans you sneaked out to buy at Neiman Marcus. Spouses can check up on one another. And social interactions will produce a fear factor for everyone, knowing that we have no secrets.

While we have always been billboards for the brands we love, the prospect of being scanned by anyone and everyone means that we will have eliminated the time lag between product discovery and product purchase. Like my shirt? Buy it. Now. This is a potential gold mine for every manufacturer and retailer. Websites and BAM stores will be old hat. Because the Mall of Earth never closes.

I just hope that Accenture also considered how to pay us for all of the referrals. Because as it stands, we are all working way too cheaply.

Dr “Where’d You Get Those Shoes?” Gerlich

Happy Beginnings

26 03 2011

In the old days, the only way we knew about upcoming movies was to actually be in a theater to watch something else, and then get to see the trailers before the featured attraction. It worked fairly well, and built anticipation, but it was sorely limited by the four walls of the theater. Never mind that, after 5 trailers, we were exhausted and ready for the real movie to start.

The web changed all that, with every movie getting its own dedicated website. Trailers, photos, story line, and actor bios could all be included to help build hype. At least we could consume it all on our terms. Cue the popcorn.

But this is 2011, and that is all so lame. Who goes to websites anyway these days?

Which is why last fall, in a pre-release push for Little Fockers, an iPad app and social media strategy was utilized to make the movie go viral long before it hit the silver screen. It worked. Since its December 22 release, it has grossed over $300 million worldwide. Not bad for the third movie in a franchise.

The app had two trailers and enough other material to keep me interested for a hour. And then I did exactly what Universal wanted: I shared the daylights out of it on my Facebook Wall. Universal also partnered with Glue, the situation-based social networking site (e.g., books, movies, music, etc.), so that material could be viewed there and subsequently shared to Facebook and Twitter.

So effective has this strategy been that ABC is using a similar social push to hype the launch of Happy Endings, a new sitcom coming in April. If the campaign is successful, ABC hopes to use it in the future with other shows.

The premise is simple. Get tech-forward folks to text “happy” to 21534, and in return senders will receive a teaser video with the stars of the show. Oh yeah…and it can then be posted to Facebook and Twitter. The campaign officially launches this coming Wednesday, so those who opt-in now will only receive a brief informational response for now.

The idea is that, by giving some social currency to the movers and shakers in techno-land, they will do the legwork for ABC. And I have no doubt the strategy will work…as long as the teaser videos are compelling enough to want to share.

Since it is still early in the game for such movie and television hyping, the strategy stands to strike gold. Of course, ask me about this in a year, and I may tell you that the method is tired. Success will attract copycats, and ABC, emboldened by the success of one, will no doubt roll them out like so many Subways and McDonald’s.

For now, though, this is the bleeding edge in viral marketing. The early adopters among us love being entrusted with insider info, and will gladly share it with our peeps. It serves to bolster our standing on the social graph. Never mind that ABC, Universal, et al are literally exploiting an entire demographic. This is marketing, and, like war, anything goes. In fact, I can argue that marketing is even more cutthroat, because none of us ever signed on to the Geneva Convention. We take no prisoners…only Visa and MasterCard.

Get it while it’s hot, everyone. This is a fantastic method for now, but the playing field will soon be crowded. The theater of our mind will once again be cluttered, and marketers will be looking for The Next Big Thing, a new way to sink their hooks into our minds.

I can’t wait to see the trailer for that one.

Dr “Now Showing” Gerlich

Living Color

25 03 2011

The mantra of the Web 2.0 era is but one word: Share. Everything we do these days is focused on sharing…our status updates and tweets, our likes, our music, our books. And now our pics.

The new photo app Color for iPhone and Android launched this week, taking image sharing to a new level. Sure, we’ve been able to post pics to Facebook forever, and apps like Instagram and Color+ have sharing capabilities, but Color makes sharing happen on the fly. Wherever you are. Without uploading. With your friends. Even among total strangers.

Yep, strangers.

Color is the brain child of Bill Nguyen, founder of LaLa, a music sharing site bought and shuttered by Apple. Afloat with $41 million in seed money (go ahead…say OMG!), Nguyen plans to grow from 30 employees to 100 in the coming months. All this with nary a hint of a revenue plan. Can you say blind faith?

Anyone using the app will be able to see the pics taken by other app-users within a narrow range of proximity (remember, that GPS unit in your phone is always working). Pool party for a bunch of kids and their parents? It’s a snap. Everyone shoot. Everyone shares.

But if you’re at the zoo with your extended family, you’ll be sharing pics with not only them, but everyone else at the zoo. At least while you’re at the zoo.

Because, while the pics are all public, the sharing feature vanishes once everyone goes their separate ways. It truly is a “moving” share-a-thon.

The app is also smart enough to begin to recognize patterns in your interactions, like if you meet certain people on a regular basis and take pics. You will then be linked to them and their pics automatically. The app is also able to determine if a multitude of shots are being taken of the same target, like a concert stage or natural landmark. This conclusion would be used to help determine who is sharing with whom…like those at a Jimmy Buffett concert.

Sure, many folks will be scared off by the prospect of creepers in the vicinity. Users can block others, though, and everyone runs the risk of having their smartphone app shut down if they violate decency. Since every pic is quickly traceable to you and your phone, it behooves everyone to self-police. Still, just knowing that an army of amateur photos is out and about sharing pics should give pause to anyone doing something the least bit questionable.

I must admit that this combined intentional and unintentional sharing leaves me just a bit uncertain about how, when and where I will use this. OK, I have already decided to give it a try (remember, I get paid to teach this stuff). I also know that it is far too easy to do screen captures. While I may technically be temporarily sharing pics with the other folks at the zoo, I must remember that anyone with a modest working knowledge of smartphones could just as easily steal my pic.

To be honest, I am not sure how Nguyen plans to monetize this business, other than by recruiting angel investors, and then possibly selling off (like to Apple again). Apple could leverage this app to the hilt, further enhancing the iPhone/iPod/iPad experience. Since the app does not include any of the hip filters and effects that Instagram and Camera+ boast, this is just straight-up photography with a 5 megapixel camera. In other words, not exactly bleeding edge.

But few thought that LaLa served any good purpose either (except Apple). I loved it dearly, and was sad to see it go (it allowed users to literally upload their entire iTunes library to the LaLa cloud, which could be accessed from anywhere). Nguyen may very well be cooking up his encore.

In the mean time, everyone be on their best behavior. Because you may wind up in someone else’s camera roll. There are some things you may not want to share.

Dr “Say Cheese” Gerlich

Share Of App

24 03 2011

Marketers love to talk about lofty topics like same-store sales, sales per square foot, conversion rates, and share of wallet. They are the metrics that help define whether a business is successful or not. And while that latter metric is a loose metaphor of our total discretionary income, it looks like we may need to change the phrase to be “share of app.”

How’s that again?

After more than a year of pilot testing, Starbucks unleashed its mobile payment app a couple of months ago. Now a SBUX customer need only tap the app on their phone, and let a POS scanner read it. Presto. Money exchanged. Coffee to go. Balance recalculated. In this short period of time, more than 3 million people have used the app to buy their morning pick-me-up.

And it tells me that, even though we are many years behind the rest of the world in mobile payment options, the idea is finally taking wings in the US. Get ready to ditch your wallet and grab your phone, because that’s all we’re going to need. Soon.

This raises a more important question, though, and that is the need for a non-dedicated mobile payment app. I would not welcome having to feed multiple app accounts with electronic money in order to be able to buy a coffee for breakfast, lunch at Jason’s Deli, and the dinner at Chili’s. What we need is a universal payment app that can work anywhere. You know…kind of like currency. (How old-school!)

I am not advocating a national app issued by the Treasury Department. Instead, the time is right for Visa, MasterCard, et al, to issue debit apps tied to our bank accounts. These apps should also have biometrics included, such as a fingerprint or retinal scanner to identify us as the authorized user.

All of this change will not come without a price. There will be resistance along some fronts, especially from those who do not own a smartphone, or simply fear technology. But this is really nothing new at all, as we have already gone through changes from a cash-based, to check-based, to plastic-based economy anyway. This is simply the next step.

Sure, a significant portion of that 3 million may be novelty seekers and tire kickers, but at least they were willing to check it out. As long as they see the benefit from using mobile payments (and how easy ti is to recharge the app), they will likely continue to use it beyond that first round of coffee they bought for their friends. “Hey, it’s on me. Now take a look at this cool app I just downloaded!”

As for me, I am all in favor of going not just cashless, but also plastic-free. The more tasks, products and services I can cram into my phone, the better off I am going to be. Yes, I could always lose my phone, or worse yet, have it stolen. And I would be in a world of hurt. But the same would be true if someone were to steal my wallet. In fact, I venture to say I would be worse off if someone stole my wallet, because there are way too many pieces of identifying information in it. At least I can lock down my phone and make it tougher for someone to get in it.

If you’d like to discuss this further, I’ll meet you down at SBUX. This one’s on me.

Dr “Java Jive” Gerlich

Cart Attack, Part 2

23 03 2011

When companies started selling things online in 1994, little did people realize that a revolution had just begun. The opening salvos had been fired. The mortar between the bricks started to develop tiny hairline cracks.

And those cracks continued to grow as each year passed by.

By the latter part of the 90s, countless software providers offered turnkey shopping cart solutions for small- to medium-size retailers, making it possible for anyone to open their own online store. The mechanics of coding a shopping cart were left to a handful of geeks working in dark basements, allowing everyone else to reap the benefits of simple internet transactions. In fact, it was the development of shopping cart solutions that helped tear down the walls of economic isolation, making the world your competitor (or provider, depending on your perspective).

But Facebook has changed all of the rules. Whereas the company website was once the landing page for nearly every business, now it is the FB Fan Page. And if your Fan Page doesn’t have shopping, you are as behind the curve as any 1998 company that did not sell things online.

The first company to sell things via Facebook was 1.800.Flowers, wa-a-ay back in May 2009. At the time, no one realized that internet plate tectonics was realigning the continents of modern marketing. But building online stores at FB is a little trickier than inserting cut-and-paste shopping cart code into a website. Developers had to know their way through Facebook’s proprietary FBML (Facebook Markup Language), and install an app that allowed for customization.

Until now, because turnkey solutions such as Payvment are making it just as possible today as it was in 1998 to sell things online…but via Facebook.

I for one am ecstatic. I have built some online shopping pages at FB, but the interface with my website-based cart code was clunky. Payvment offers a very simple solution that allows a shop to be up and running in a matter of minutes.

And if you believed my prognostication a year ago that Facebook was poised to become The World’s Biggest Shopping Mall, you realize how critical this is to that becoming true.

This does not mean that website e-commerce as we know it will vanish. No, retailers must continue to offer that option. It just means that, with 600 million users, folks finally awakened to the fact that people simply do not go to websites like they once did…and that folks are camped out on FB all the live long day. The old store is still open, but the new one is where the traffic is.

This new reality has far-reaching implications, especially when you consider that many of us access our FB via a mobile device. It means that we will see an increase in m-commerce as well. Sure, there will be shopping apps and QR readers with shopping features, but being able to stroll the virtual mall of Facebooklandia from our phone or iPad is soon to become a reality.

Smaller retailers will benefit enormously from providers like Payvment, because they will not need to outsource this function to other developers. It’s so simple to build a FB store that just about anyone with a minimal amount of FB experience can master it.

Those who loathe online sites that compete with local vendors are going to hate FB shopping, but this is the next step in the natural evolution of consumer purchasing. The second round of the revolution has begun, and the cracks in the mortar are getting larger. I just hope it doesn’t take getting hit by falling bricks to bring everyone to this realization.

Because I don’t think they’re taking prisoners this time.

Dr “Add To Cart” Gerlich

Raising The Bar (Code)

22 03 2011

When bar codes were introduced in 1974 (on a pack of Wrigley Gum at a Marsh Supermarket in Indiana), a small but vocal group of naysayers announced that we had entered the era of the antichrist. Soon, they forecast, we would have personal bar codes tattooed to our foreheads and wrists, requirements to buy and sell. Some customers demanded their purchases be hand-scanned as well, fearing radiation from the laser.

We got over it, and antichrist has yet to arrive. But bar codes (which became known more commonly as UPCs–Universal Product Codes) have become ubiquitous, and customers self-scan items at many stores, thanks to labor-saving mandates from retail management.

Today, those simple 1D codes are being replaces by a variety of 2D codes, commonly called QR codes (Quick Response) and EZ Codes. These codes look like a mashup of little black boxes and white space, but are unique to the item or individual to which it is linked. They appear in print ads and in public places, and are increasingly used to promote products and sweepstakes. And now Home Depot is incorporating these mobile bar codes into its stores, print ads and signage to allow for customer interactivity.

All you need is a QR reader on your phone, and suddenly you are on your way to becoming an informed shopper.

Home Depot’s application allows users to access product information and videos about the item they are perusing, as well as purchase the item, either in-store or at home. Shelf tags will now have a unique mobile code for the item, which is linked to specific web content meant to help make the sale.

Of course, the big question is whether people will actually use these codes. With about one-half of the US population now toting a smartphone, that instantly cuts the audience in half. Further trimming the group is the fact that a lot of people are not even aware of mobile codes, and have no idea what to do with them (or that they need a special app). For the time being, that could be akin to launching a fax campaign back when only a handful of people owned a fax machine.

But this will change. While only the most tech-savvy customers will be able to benefit initially, eventually a sufficient critical mass will evolve that will utilize the codes as a shopping aid. For the moment, though, these codes are not cheap to support. ScanBuy, the company behind Home Depot’s foray into 2d codes, charges about $50 per month for even small businesses to deploy them. Home Depot has no doubt sunk a small fortune to bring the entire chain (and its many thousands of products) up to the plate.

Just like 1D bar codes filled every nook and cranny of retailing, 2D codes are following in hot pursuit. They offer far greater interactivity for customers, and give retailers an enormous second chance to make the sale.

While there is a technology and service adoption period still to be endured, perhaps the hardest part will be in training customers to look for these codes in the first place. They are small, and their black-on-white appearance makes them easy to miss. It is only because I am actively seeking these hip, cool little boxes that I have begun to see them everywhere.

This speed bump too shall pass. Soon the masses will be busy scanning QRs at every turn. And this time around there should be no fear about them being tattooed to body parts, because we can simply create our own unique codes online, then post them to our FB page (like I did today). The code can then be linked to whatever web content we desire. Never mind that fears of such codes becoming human ID tags were misplaced.

I just want to know how to finish that little DIY project.

Dr “Or Better Yet, Hire Someone To Do It” Gerlich