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1 Feb, 2012 By: Jackie Jones Response

For the health care industry, technology can be a double-edged sword. While the ever-growing number of digital platforms provides consumers easier on-the-go access to valuable information, it also opens the door to faulty data and flawed treatments, as anyone with access to a keyboard can self-diagnose with the click of a button. So how can health care marketers reach consumers with accurate information they might not even know they need? The answer could lie in mobile.

Despite industry debate over the value of quick-response (QR) codes, research shows they are gaining traction. About 14 million U.S. adults accessed QR codes in a one-month span, comScore Inc. reports, and 43 percent of Americans with cell phone service own smartphones, according to Nielsen Research Co.

“Consumers now turn to mobile phones and other handheld devices as a primary source for media consumption,” says Kristen Grant, communications and marketing director for the Eastern Division of the American Cancer Society (ACS). “We know that QR codes, as well as other mobile technologies, need to be more fully integrated into all of our digital and traditional media platforms so that our constituents have a 360-degree view of the organization and the various events and programs we offer.”

It’s nearly impossible to find someone who isn’t walking around with some form of Internet access in his or her pocket or purse. As people become more reliant on technology, advances such as QR codes make it easier to connect marketers and consumers — whether that’s a brand and a shopper, or a doctor and a patient.

“As smartphone adoption increases, advertisers continue to seek new ways to connect with consumers, and QR codes are still winning the popularity contest,” says Brad Feldman, vice president of business development for Aurasma, a wholly owned subsidiary of HP that provides a technology platform to enable visual browsing from mobile devices. “By bringing print one step closer to the digital world, QR codes provide a shortcut for those who are unwilling to type a long URL on a tiny keyboard.”

QR codes tap into the core of direct response advertising, enabling marketers across all verticals to easily track response, whether in the form of sales, page visits or video views, Feldman notes.

Much of the criticism over QR codes has been whether the technology truly has an impact on end-sales, but those in the health care space honed in on awareness and functionality are faring much better, experts note. The possibilities are endless — a QR code on a pill bottle could be used to provide useful information, such as visual directions or tips not included on the label; organizations such as the ACS and the Oral Cancer Foundation (OCF) have used QR codes promotionally to spread awareness of diseases and treatments; and hospitals around the U.S. have used scanning technology to enable patients to more easily book life-saving appointments they might have otherwise neglected to schedule.

“There is a higher level of awareness in the health care space of what QR codes are,” says Kurt Mueller, chief digital and science officer of Roska Healthcare Advertising. “The technology skews to a younger audience that tends to be using smartphones. If you look at the health care industry and the types of diseases and treatments that are around, marketers in the pediatrician or primary care space would have a lot of success.”

“QR code campaigns geared toward health education and cost savings to patients are by far the most effective,” Mueller adds.

The IQ of QR

The Oral Cancer Foundation, a nonprofit based in Newport Beach, Calif., is one of the health care organizations that have most-effectively used QR codes in its marketing and promotional efforts, Mueller says.

“You have to play to the right demographic, and the Oral Cancer Foundation has done a very good job of knowing their audience, and leveraging that to efficiently target them with QR code technology,” Mueller notes.

The Oral Cancer Foundation, which aims to spread awareness of a disease surprisingly little is known about to those it can affect the most — those in their 20s and 30s — has used QR codes in an environment ripe with their target audience; and in an eye-catching way. At a Surf City surfing championship in Huntington Beach, Calif., OCF representatives placed QR-code temporary tattoos on beachgoers, that when scanned, brought viewers to a video speaking about a widow whose husband — a young nonsmoker — had been lost to the disease.

“The American public often doesn’t know who gets oral cancer — it’s not just smokers over the age of 50 as some think. Most don’t know that the disease can be transmitted through intimate contact, and that often those affected are the 18-34 demographic,” says Brian Hill, founder and executive director of the OCF. Coincidentally enough, those between the ages of 18 to 34 are the most likely to use QR codes, with 53.4 percent of QR code users falling in that demographic, according to comScore. “This exact demographic was at the surf event with their smart phones,” Hill adds. “We thought what better way to reach them than with QR codes, a fun tool that took them to a video featuring not only someone they could relate to, but a video rich in content about something most of them haven’t heard of, and which might save their life.”

The QR campaign, which cost less than $5,000 for the OCF, had a huge return on investment for a smaller non-profit working with a far smaller budget than most. By the end of the first day, the OCF had reached 30,000 hits on its server. For a campaign whose goal was awareness, the OCF, one of the first in the non-profit arena to use smart phone QR technology, considered it a grand slam. “We had the right idea at the right time,” Hill says. “We accomplished our mission, living inside a very small budget, to make people more aware of the disease, who gets it, and hopefully help that demographic side step this disease.”

“We had the right idea at the right time,” Hill says. “We accomplished our mission to make people more aware of the disease, who gets it, and that they themselves were the demographic at risk.”

The OCF plans to continue its use of QR codes in marketing efforts in unique and engaging ways, even introducing edible QR codes at future events, all with the goal of spreading awareness.

“We haven’t finished the QR code escapade yet, and we want to stay ahead of the curve finding other innovative ways to use it,” Hill says. “Some QR codes simply take you to a website, but if the content isn’t dynamic and doesn’t catch your eye, it’s not effective. It’s what an organization does with the QR code that makes it effective or not; many use them the same a URL, but there are opportunities to provide something much more dynamic and informative.”

Others in the health care industry are effectively targeting QR code technology to push a specific call-to-action in a way that elicits continued engagement. From national organizations, such as the ACS, to local hospitals, QR codes have proven useful in raising funds, boosting event participation, and aiding consumers in necessary actions such as appointment making.

For the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaigns in 2010 and 2011, consumers walking by metro transit ads in New York and New Jersey could scan a QR code that took them to a mobile site where they could donate, learn more about the event, or tell others about the cause by generating E-mail invitations to the walk. The ACS also placed QR codes on thank-you cards that linked to a mobile donation page unique to each specific event recipients participated in.

“One of our initial goals in incorporating QR codes into the Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaign was to bridge a two-dimensional communication platform to one that is mobile and, thus, create more opportunity to engage our constituents, making it easier for them to learn more about the event and become involved,” Grant says. “QR codes also let our constituents opt-in to the promotion — allowing them to digest information when and where they wanted it, providing a flexible, more dynamic experience that has helped us build better brand loyalty and increase participation.”

In the summer of 2011, Athens Regional Health System created an integrated marketing campaign incorporating QR codes on print media to promote the launch of online mammogram requests for its Breast Health Center. Those who scanned the QR code were directed to a site they could easily submit information to and request a mammogram.

“There’s a lot of talk about innovation in terms of QR use, but to me, it’s more about ease of use. As a marketer and a Web developer, it’s my job to make lives easier. It shouldn’t be a hassle to handle the necessary,” says Courtney Alford-Pomeroy, website marketing manager for Athens Regional Health System. “The average woman over the age of 40 is very busy — she’s managing a job, a house, bills, kids and more. Why make her have to pick up the phone and call an office for an appointment during the times she has a billion other things on her plate? By offering online requests, we make it convenient to schedule that appointment, and by using her smartphone to scan a QR code, she can do it anywhere. If we can make the things she has to do easier, we make her life better. There’s no question that’s the right thing to do.”

Response to Athens’ QR campaign was overwhelmingly positive, Alford-Pomeroy notes. In the first weeks of the campaign, 15 percent of traffic to the mammogram request form was QR-driven, and those using the QR codes were three times more likely to book an appointment the first time they landed on the page. Alford-Pomeroy echoes Hill’s sentiments in the need for unique, engaging content in connection to QR codes.

“Using QR codes doesn’t cost anything, and they’re easy to create. Connected to tracking URLs and analytics, they can be a very powerful tool,” she says. “But I do believe there must be an incentive for users to make QR codes effective. For the Breast Health Center, they worked because they linked directly to the mammogram request. QR codes should be used to connect people directly to services. Don’t send users to a homepage — send them to a event registration page or specific coupons.”

Knowledge Is Power

Like any vertical looking to use QR codes, challenges remain in health care. Not all patients or consumers affected by different diseases or ailments may know a program is needed on one’s smartphone to scan QR codes, and not all phones come preinstalled with an app or reader, Mueller cautions. If the industry could create one universal, agreed-upon reader, consumer awareness would skyrocket, he says.

The ACS did experience a slight lag in consumer education when it came to QR codes in its Making Strides Against Breast Cancer campaigns, Grant says.

“QR codes are relatively new and consumers were just starting to see them when we launched the transit ads in 2010,” she says. “We speculated that we needed more specific instructions on how to download the scanner app and added the instructions on our 2011 ads, which may have helped increase our mobile site traffic. Although we’ve seen increased recognition and usage of QR codes, there still seems to be a slow adoption among the public. We see usage increasing as mobile phones incorporate native scanner apps and smartphone users increase.”

Health care marketers — from nonprofits to hospitals to pharmacists — may see even greater degrees of opportunity in the mobile space as QR codes make way for further technological advancements that Feldman of Aurasma refers to as “visual browsing.”

“Companies such as Aurasma are already moving onto the next generation of bridging the digital and physical divide by enabling mobile devices to understand what they are seeing and deliver compelling digital content,” Feldman says. “This new wave of ‘visual browsing’ enables smartphones to see and recognize product packaging. As more and more companies adopt visual browsing, we will be able to point our phones at any image or object and receive information because the mobile device will understand what it sees and associate that image with content.”

Some of the greatest criticism of QR codes — that marketers are not creating them with the consumer in mind, that QR codes are not connecting to anything interesting, and that marketers are not focused on the environment in which QR codes are being placed — seem to have been addressed already by many in the health care space, leaving the future clear for even more success.

“The industry has seen a lot of QR code bashing, but what people need to understand is it’s one more tool in the box. Use it wisely and use it for the purpose it’s intended for,” Mueller says. “You can deploy it effectively provided you have a strategy. Don’t do it for technology’s sake, and make sure you can report back on the success levels of it — and you’ll return the value.”

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