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Hypergene MediaBlog » Flashback to the CueCat: Google tries barcodes in print ads
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Flashback to the CueCat: Google tries barcodes in print ads


It’s not something we talk about.

Until today, we never blogged about it.

And since 2000, we have been trying to figure out how we could have stopped it - the CueCat.

(Cue harpsichord strings for flashback scene)

I remember the day in 1999. Shayne and I were working at a large media company in Texas.

My boss walked out of his office to tell me the news. The conversations went something like this:

“Chris, this company, Digital Convergence or something, wants us to put barcodes on articles and ads in the paper. They then want us to give away barcode scanners to millions of people. When they scan these barcodes, we’ll take control of their browser and display whatever web page we or the advertiser wants. I’d like to know what you think.”

“That’s a terrible idea.” I said.

A moment later, CitySearch CEO Charles Conn came in to meet with Shayne and me.

“What’s new?” he asked.

I told him.

“That’s a #@!%&$*-up idea.”

But, our distaste alone was not enough to discourage the executives. They wanted bullet points.

I outlined the obvious:

  1. The CueCat does not solve a problem for readers.
  2. The CueCat puts our offline business in jeopardy. It’s like throwing a big stone in the glass house we’ve built called “readership.” Advertisers are interested not just in circulation numbers but how many people are actually reading their ads. Our readership number was about 2.5 times circulation and would not likely bear the scrutiny of the CueCat.
  3. Significant reader adoption of the CueCat was impossible due to privacy concerns, installation issues, cost and, in this case, common sense.

I received no feedback on the objections and thought nothing of it until one day another executive stopped by.

“Chris, you remember that CueCat thing?”


“We’re gonna do it. We need some help.”

At the time, print advertising was still growing the bottom line. So media executives likely believed that the CueCat was an easy answer to their dream: A way to get more money without having to figure out this Internet-thing.

But the CueCat was a rare and notable invention in at least one respect: Anyone who knew anything was certain it would fail. And they were right.

Some months after leaving this media company, I was taking with a former colleague still working on the CueCat some months after its debut.

I ask him how many times people had scanned barcodes.

“Nine,” he replied.

“Nine million?”

“No, just nine.”


Google’s 2D Barcodes raise a similar repulsion though the circumstances are quite different - people use a cellphone camera not a CueCat, less privacy concerns, people at Google should be smarter.

Google believes that technology can revolutionize traditional print advertising and make it even more useful for readers. This fits with our commitment to making advertising as useful as possible for the end user.

Though history might not be repeating itself, it’s sure starting to rhyme.

Related: Joel on Software: Wasting Money on Cats (Sept 2000)

Posted on Jan 29, 2008 | 7:53 pm EST


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One of the things I wonder is whether “solving a problem” and “being useful” ignore a vital synaptic component: motivation. What we’re talking what about incites an individual to action.  Usefulness is a value, but does it provide motivation?  Solving a problem to me represents a situation in which there is a gulf between the task at hand and an ideal result.  Being useful is a subset of solving a problem: a useful component in the solution or merely something that is handy and narrows the distance between the task and the result. Can I see the value in this component?  Is snapping a picture easier than typing in a URL, for instance.

But then there’s motivation.  The problem with the CueCat was the synaptic distance between getting the separate equipment, scanning from the newspaper, and getting that information to your computer was a total kludge, and the motivation to do it did not generate the energy to even try.  But the thing about usefulness is that, if a thing’s usefulness is so limited (as in the payoff is thought to be too minor), then it won’t catch fire.

A thing in and of itself can be motivational based on what it is appealing to.  Solving a problem is certainly motivational, but so is “register to win” where the distance between seeing an ad and getting zapped to the registration context is shortened considerably.  This might be where the result of a thing’s usefulness is immediate and, therefore, where it’s limited scope does not weigh significantly as a factor.

Google’s explanation used the word “it”, with grammatical reference to “traditional print media” and making “it” more useful for readers.  Google quoted some stats from the NAA 2006 Reader Engagement Study to show that people use newspapers as a key resource for shopping information, but they did not take the next step (that I could find) in showcasing how the 2D barcode would make things more useful to readers.  Their general outlook is “The benefit to readers is an easier, quicker way to get more information about businesses that interest them.” One blogger asked: Is a wireless device going to show me more info than a print ad could?  I would say, that depends on what lies at the destination end.  For automobile classifieds, most certainly!  Other posts start off with questions like, “Too lazy to type in a URL?” The problem with these objections is that they aren’t considering a multi-branching payoff.  Newspapers can only approximate branching with “references” to other sections or more information — they’re linear — whereas the barcode technology offers branchability.  The “scent” (the context around the barcode that communicates the value of the effort to head down the trail) is a key element for foraging.  And this key is missing in the discussions about the viability of the barcode.

I can imagine a situation where the ad is for a concert. What entry typical perspectives do consumers have about concerts?  Tickets, prices, seating, posters, to name a few.  So I snap a picture of a barcode, and it takes me to a set of four choices: buy tickets now!, get a ring-tone, more info on the concert itself, and text this to a friend.  It’s “usefulness” has been enriched by both its immediacy and actionability.  Or an ad for a book taking you directly to the Amazon page for the book with the incentive of a discount for buying via this bar-coded route.  The placement of the discount relative to the barcode becomes obvious.  And the “scent” for this value would have to be established in the ad itself.

Immediacy and portability are key words in a mobile application’s value to consumers.  There is, of course, the hurtle of getting the software (an application) onto your phone, but this is not insurmountable or necessarily even a high hurtle.  An extra, one-time step.  How much more inconvenient to get the software than to get a ring-tone?  Nokia N-Series have had the technology for a while already, and BlackBerry has already announced it software is available and being used.  The objection to the limitation being its application to newspaper ads is not a limitation of barcode use: it’s only one, single application of its use.

In my reading of the many blog posts and articles about the resurrection of what, at the time, was a horrendously bad idea, I’m finding similar reaction to yours: it was a bad idea back then because it lacked any value to the consumer; and its reputation from that time is coloring its consideration in a more mobile context.  Another article claims that the main reason for the demise of CueCat was for security reasons and its ability to be hacked during a time when there was a major, publicized security breach.  So, can we really say that the demise of the innovation was predominantly that it was a solution in search of a problem?

I guess we can only wait and see, huh?

Posted by: RBiggs on Jan 30, 08 | 12:42 pm EST

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