Monday, September 9, 2013

How to extract cash from other people

I got a phone call this morning — at 7.30 am, I should point out — from the publishers of the Yellow Pages. One of their reps was in my area, and they wanted to know if I would be interested in talking to him about the creation of a QR code, which would “make it easier for people to find your business”, according to the warm, friendly, non-threatening yet businesslike male voice on the other end of the line.

It was one of those moments where you feel that you have slipped into some sort of parallel dimension, one in which everything was basically the same, save for some very small, but significant, differences. I’m no longer in the Yellow Pages, right? Right, but there’s still my (free) online entry. But what use is a QR code online? No, no, I misunderstand: I can use my QR code in all my printed media. But anyone can get a QR code for themselves, completely free, and in seconds. Well yes, but a lot of small businesses don’t know how, so they’re offering this service.

I told them I wasn’t interested and hung up, but that last bit stuck in my mind: a lot of small businesses don’t know how. And so they saw an opportunity to pounce.

The “how” is simple. True, a lot of small businessmen — by which we usually mean plumbers, joiners, tilers, electricians and so on — don’t know how, but they almost certainly know somebody who does know how, even if it’s a 12-year-old nephew. Just to prove the point to myself, I went online and got a free QR code in less than ten seconds. And that ten seconds included the time it took to google for a QR code generator, which led me to And here it is:

So it’s really easy to get one, and it’s free. Granted, it’s a bitmap rather than a vector graphic, but it should scale perfectly well nonetheless.

But do I need it? Well, quite frankly, no; and I doubt that many plumbers, joiners, tilers, electricians and so on would need one either.

QR codes are a great invention, and are put to excellent use. Bus timetables now have QR codes embedded in them, for up-to-the-minute information about delays, cancellations and such. VR cards can be encoded into a QR code which can be printed on a business card. Art galleries have QR codes next to each painting, pointing to lots of information about the painting itself, the artist and so on. They’re brilliant, although I’m not sure I’m willing to have one on a T-shirt.

Why would I use one? Well, perhaps if I were running some kind of special campaign, with a long or cryptic URL: I could have the QR code embedded on billboards and flyers. Such a QR code could include a parameter that tells me, the website owner, where the visitor found the QR code.

But I don’t have billboards and flyers all over the place, and I don’t run the kind of campaign that, say, Coca-Cola or Time Warner might run. And I don’t know any plumbers, joiners, tilers, electricians and so on who do. When I need somebody to fix the sink, I find their phone number in the local phone book or Yellow Pages, or ask my neighbours who they’d recommend. I might google for them, but a printed local directory is likely to be slightly more geographically accurate. What I don’t do is see their posters up everywhere and think, “Gosh, if only that had a QR code, I’d visit their website.”

There’s something about this whole business that leaves a nasty taste in the mouth. It seems to me to be rather opportunistic to try to sell something to somebody who almost certainly doesn’t need it and could have for free if they do. Generally speaking, if somebody does offer you something you’ve never needed before, promising you that it will drive customers to your business, especially if it involves new technology... get the advice of somebody you trust and who knows about this stuff.

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