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

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Tuesday, 29 Jan 2008

Flashback to the CueCat: Google tries barcodes in print ads

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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?”

“Yes.”

“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.”

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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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