Seeing more QR codes in the mail?

If the United States Postal Service’s campaign is a success, you very well might be seeing more of those funky, blocky, smartphone-friendly website cues in your mailbox (your real one, not your email inbox). The USPS is currently running a two-month summer campaign offering a 3 percent discount to businesses that include QR (quick response) codes on mailpieces – the idea being to “provide] marketers with a compelling way to reach an internet-savvy customer base,” according to a [press release quoting Tom Foti, USPS Marketing Mail manager.

On a local level, Westar Energy is taking part in the promotion (see our story by Shaun Hittle), so the next time you open your electric bill you might want to keep your smartphone handy; we don’t want to spoil the surprise, but if you scan the code you’ll get to a website with energy conservation tips.

So other than encouraging folks to learn more about saving electricity, what’s the point? And more specifically, what’s the point for the Postal Service, which stands to lose a bundle in an already eroded market if users scan a QR code to reach, say, an invitation to a paperless billing option?

Well, for one thing, businesses can’t quite go that far. The USPS actually specifies that QR codes linking to print mailing opt-out forms don’t qualify for the promotion – here’s what it says in the official guide:

Can the mobile barcode link to a page that allows customers to sign up for online bill paying or paperless statement service?

A: The mobile barcode must be used for marketing, promotional, or educational purposes. Links that direct consumers to sites that encourage enrollment to online bill paying or paperless statement services are not considered marketing, promotional, or educational for the purposes of this initiative and are not eligible for the discount.

There’s been talk in industry blogs (here’s one example, though it’s unsubstantiated) that the Postal Service recognizes a move like this QR promotion might be a minor act of self-sabotage. On the flip side, though, the USPS campaign does seem to indicate that they recognize bulk mailing is in serious trouble unless marketers – and audiences – realize some value in integrating print and online contact points. Says Foti in that press release: “Consumers have become more comfortable with digital devices and online technologies, and the industry should consider incorporating elements that reflect these trends into direct mail campaigns.”

That’s not just marketing speak, actually. While the idea of “multiple touches” – remind the customer of your message across media, times and triggers – is something that makes sense even if we never made it through Advertising 101, forward-thinking marketers may be better at expanding into new media (Google+ anyone?) than they are at bringing those new channels back into integration with existing means of communication. After all, how often do we see statements like “click here to subscribe to our print catalog” in, say, our favorite retailer’s Twitter stream? Social media and mobile e-commerce are undoubtedly the Next Big Things in communications and marketing for just about any industry, but it’s important to remember that they’re also members of a larger family that can include everything from a nifty direct-mail postcard to a guy standing on a corner with a sandwich board. The challenge in execution is to make sure all those different media send a unified message and – just as importantly – are aware that each of the others exist. And that’s where marketing gets difficult … and fun for both the producer and audience.

Seen any other QR codes “in the wild” – in other words, in your mailbox? We’d love to hear what you think works and what doesn’t. Let us know what you found by leaving a comment.