As media businesses emerge – some bruised, some dazed, some in surprisingly rude health – from the latest lockdowns, one surprise winner stands out in the UK: the humble QR code.
Yes, that aesthetically challenged pixellated square which was once believed to hold the key to the future of print-to-digital e-commerce; loathed by magazine teams and shunned (at best, completely misunderstood at worst) by consumers, found itself finally – finally! – projected into mass consumer consciousness.
It’s more than 20 years since the QR code caught the imagination of Japanese consumers. But, despite the best efforts of publishers, retailers, the advertising industry and many others, it never quite took hold in the West. Until lockdown in the UK. Suddenly, QR codes were everywhere. If you wanted to do almost anything that involved leaving the house, pointing your mobile phone camera at a QR code became a fact of life. And, suddenly, the final blocker between e-commerce and legacy media looked like it might be about to tumble.
Because the block was not the cumbersome QR code itself, it was the reluctance of consumers to embrace it. In a technological leapfrog no-one could have seen coming, the smartphone-as-scanner came of age.
While online shopping had boomed and digital media companies, blogs and social media influencers made affiliate- and e-commerce gold from curating, recommending and selling product online, the people who started it all – the kings and queens of curation (magazines and their teams) got left behind. This had nothing to do with quality or quantity and everything to do with attribution and a user journey that ended, rather than began, with the magazine.
Unable to lead the customer by the hand to the retailer, legacy publishers’ ability to prove definitively that inclusion in a print spread led to sales has always been anecdotal. There’s not a publisher in the hemisphere who hasn’t regaled an advertiser with stories of sell-outs after featuring a product in a shopping spread. Just as there’s not a consumer over 35 (ish) who hasn’t, at some point, torn a page from a magazine with a plan to hunt down that item – once by foot, now via Google.
The advertisers’ response? Prove it.
And legacy publishers never could.
Add to that the fact that, for at least a decade, print publishers and their outdoor advertising and broadcasting peers have been struggling with the seemingly herculean task of creating a digital journey from something with no digital start-point. The problem was not just how do you turn a magazine reader into a consumer. Magazines have long known how to do that. It was more granular: how do you make that pay – not just for you, but for your clients too.
How does a B to C business, make D to C profit?
Could the embedding of multi-screening as a way of life and the long-overdue normalisation of scanning via smartphone be the answer?
The team behind Phuzion Media, the self-funded ad-tech start-up formed just 18 months ago by media-tech and financial professionals Stefano Biondi and Guy Higton, backed-up by respected magazine industry refugees Judith Secombe and Julian Linley, seem to think so. Their patented image recognition technology, which allows readers to scan the page with their mobile phone and be taken on a personalised journey to the exact product that’s caught their eye – without the obligatory detour down a Google rabbit hole – could be the missing link.
Apply that to advertising spreads too, and publishers may finally have found the attribution (and associated data) they have long sought. And not at prohibitive cost. Phuzion is reluctant to be pinned down on fees, short of saying that clients pay, “according to what they want to do.” But activation can start from as little as £1,000 for a cover and ads in a single issue. Editorial is, inevitably, more expensive, as the number of products per page can vary wildly. Presumably, where advertising is concerned, at least some of those costs can be passed straight on to the advertiser. (Phuzion describe it, cannily, as “Display+”)
Phuzion is far from the first startup to trumpet their technology as the answer to the prayers of an ailing, advertising-dependent media industry. Back in 2011, augmented reality pioneer Blippar was supposedly spelling the end for QR codes. (Blippar came close to implosion in 2019, after investors pulled out, but relaunched earlier this year in the B2B space after closing a $5M pre-series A funding round. And you don’t have to look too far to find AI companies selling less personalised and specific image recognition technology.
But what’s really crucial here is timing. After 18 months in which, for many, mobile phones became the main form of connectivity, consumers are finally getting used to using them as a link with the outside world.
If this gels in consumer consciousness, the potential is for far more than “just selling stuff”, Phuzion director (and ex Hearst UK director) Judith Secombe told Flashes & Flames: “[Our technology] allows print, broadcast, outdoor to become part of the ecosystem – no longer just a dead-end. Bolting on direct response to the brand awareness that traditional media has always excelled at.”
It also means that products accustomed to being the end of the user journey have to adapt to being the beginning. “The user journeys are multifaceted. The power is all in the hands of the media owner and its partners, they can choose any destination they want – research, data, information, content, video – anything at all, as long as it’s digital.”
The argument is persuasive.
In the last six months, News UK, the Daily Mail, Future and Bauer have all signed up to trial the technology on publications including You magazine, Fabulous, Grazia and Woman & Home. But it’s still too early to say whether Phuzion could be the Holy Grail of e-commerce. Or even a healthy payday for publishers still bogged down in monetising inexorable decline. Consumer behaviour is a fickle beast and betting on this as the tipping point for D to C revenue means committing for the long haul, not just testing a few issues.
Whether shallow-pocketed magazine publishers have the resources to find out, is a whole other matter. Perhaps things will be clearer (or not) after Christmas.