In a world where readers can find reams of information with just the click of a mouse, newspapers, magazines, and other print media struggle to survive, with their comparatively high costs and cumbersome production processes. But one promising survival tactic combines the appeal of a glossy magazine with the convenience of online interactivity.

For example, in magazines such as Esquire, InStyle, Entertainment Weekly, and Star, readers find bar codes next to graphics, articles, and ads. Esquire’s March issue will have the bar codes link to styling advice and information about where to buy items. If readers have a smartphone, they can take a picture of the bar code, then link immediately to the associated Web page and obtain more information about the content. Free applications such as ScanLife also can turn a smartphone into an automatic bar code reader.

Other tactics include text messaging codes; the user can text the code to perform the associated action, whether to gain more information or donate to a charitable cause.

Most U.S. consumers are unaccustomed to such interactivity with print media, but as more of them promise additional content outside the magazine, customers are likely to find they cannot do without it. Japanese consumers have been looking up information using bar codes for many years; at McDonald’s, they can simply use the bar code on the food wrappers to gather the nutrition information.

For this tactic to succeed for print media—that is, increase readership and thus advertising revenue—they need to make it easy and quick for users to obtain information through the bar codes. Can the user exploit the capabilities of a smartphone to look up a dress on the magazine page, find out where it sells, and perhaps even order it online, along with some recommended accessories? That question might make a life-or-death difference to print media.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Bar codes seem so promising; what are some of the possible concerns with their use?

2. Do you use the text codes now, and would you use bar codes if you found them?

Stephanie Clifford, “From Print to Phone to Web. And a Sale?” The New York Times, January 11, 2010.