For anyone who hasn’t been following the tech blogs this week, or any of the other sites that have talked about the Amazon scanner promotion, a brief background. Amazon is looking to encourage what it calls “comparison shopping” by those who have smartphones and the Amazon Price Check app. Simply take your smart phone into a regular store, scan the bar code, and see what the price of the item is on Amazon. This past Saturday, they were even offering 5% off up to three items, maxing out at $5 each.
It was seen by many as an aggressive move, another shot across the bow of brick-and-mortar retailing from a company already largely credited with destroying book selling giant Borders (though I still contend they did as much to hurt themselves as Amazon ever did to them). And it created a backlash against the company as many accused them of using everyday people as price spies, and encouraging people to go into mom-and-pop stores that they had no intention of shopping at just to get up to $15. How much of this is true, it’s hard to say. I can’t imagine no one walked into a store intending to do a quick price scan, and didn’t buy something anyway. Someone somewhere generated a sale they otherwise wouldn’t have. And most people buying from Amazon that day were probably already going to buy from Amazon anyway, and were just looking for a quick sawbuck.
I’m not defending Amazon. I’m just not looking to engage in nearly the rhetoric I’ve seen against a company that is always looking for a new way of changing the way consumers approach products. This is the same company that created Amazon Studios, a project that I’m thrilled to say I was wrong about when I approached it with some cynicism at its launch. It’s a company that is now directly publishing and selling books, a move that I’m still cynical about. It’s a company that took a flagging market in eBooks and has turned it into a commercial success. This campaign was largely a PR miss for them, but that’s something they can brush off.
What I found much more intriguing about this promotion was the way it embraced smart phone technology. There’s no doubt that the devices are rapidly changing the way we live life, and are an increasing share of the phone market. Hell, I have two of them. Nearly three if you count my iPod Touch. And one of my desires when buying a new phone was one that could do on-the-fly barcode reading, something that my old Pre could just never quite handle due to the fixed focus lens. It’s a step towards a world where we’re in more direct contact with companies, and where information can be delivered to us on the fly.
Consider the QR Code. Those are the little black-and-white squares showing up in more and more advertising, especially in places where people tend to have smart phones on them. They can be quickly scanned and decoded by most modern smart devices, delivering a website address or up to 250 characters of text on the fly. And that’s really the intriguing part of all of this, on the fly voluntary advertising. People have to make an active decision to pull out their phone and scan the code, transforming what is typically passive advertising into much more active advertising.
Because it’s fun, and cool.
As someone occasionally obsessed with new channels for self promotion, this strikes me as intriguing. I’ve already heard of tech conventions that include, on every badge, a QR Code containing all the typical business card information for that participant. It cuts out the in-between activities of adding someone into your phone’s contact list by directly dropping them in with a quick scan. On my own, I’ve played with the idea of QR codes that contain links to my blog, links to my book on Smashwords (when that was a thing) and have even considered the idea of original fiction short enough to put into a QR Code. Hell, people have created twitter-length fiction, QR gives an entire 110 extra characters for just a bit more plot depth. That’s almost twice the length.
Where does all of this lead us? I can’t help but wonder when the active will become passive again, with QR giving way to augmented reality. I also can’t help but wonder when it won’t be just a barcode that Amazon wants you to scan, but a product itself. Can I take a picture of my desk and see how much each item on it would cost to replace? It creates new lines of self promotion, something that every author engages in at least a little of. Just that slightly intriguing different take on letting the world know who you are, just enough to get eyeballs. And it digitizes things one step further. It changes the way people interact with their world, with their commerce, and with content distribution. QR codes could easily point someone to a short story, or even a novel, available free for quick download.
I can’t say that Amazon is changing the world for the better or worse by asking people to scan barcodes. I can’t say that QR codes are going to be anything more than a fad. But it is all a new form of digital interaction with our world that is already the new normal for many, and something that any self-individual, writers included, needs to keep up on.