Updated: May 11, 2019

Credit from David Sime

The Digital Divide

As a conventional marketer turned digital I am acutely aware of what is referred to as the digital divide between traditional advertising and digital marketing products.

This divide is perhaps strongest in “out of home advertising” – by which I mean posters, billboards and, well, anything outdoors. The clue’s in the name really.

So what do I mean by the digital divide then? Well, imagine you’ve just got off your train, you’re heading out through the station and an advert catches your eye – it’s for a dress or a suit from one of those new clothing brands you’re vaguely aware of and were thinking of checking out.

The model looks really good in the clothes (don’t they always) and you briefly reconcile yourself to checking them out next time you’re in front of a computer so you can buy those clothes and look like that model.

But first you have to get to work – and on the way to work stop at the coffee shop, then another store to pick up some lunch, then you arrive at work to the usual barrage of tasks, good mornings, emails, phone-calls that start most of our working days.

Still thinking about that advert? Nope. Chances are that even if you do get a chance to look at some clothes online it won’t be until that evening, by which time you’ll probably have forgotten what the brand was, much less the actual item of clothing.

That, my friend, is the digital divide. The gap between learning you can buy something online and actually being able to take action on it.

The solution from the out of home advertising industry (quaintly abbreviated to “OOH”) to shrink this digital divide was to start using digital triggers that would direct your phone to connect with the very thing being advertised.

These included Bluetooth beacons (which need a power source, regular maintenance and, of course, for the user’s phone to have Bluetooth switched on) Near-Field technology (much the same, and you have to actually “tap” the advert with your phone) and, in particular, QR codes.

A Bar-Code For A New Generation

You know, QR codes, those little squiggly black and white boxes you see on everything from petrol pumps to packs of chewing gum… They’re actually quite a clever idea, where without any chips, power sources or banging of phones off things you can scan the code  with your phone’s camera and be taken directly to the website or app of relevance.

So why then, after many years of use, has uptake of QR codes in Europe (and the UK particularly) been so limited? It could be argued that their failure has now made them a laughing stock, to the extent that that they are looked upon in the marketing world with almost the same embarrassment as an old photograph of your dad wearing flares.

Is it because they are inherently a terrible idea? You’d be tempted to think so, but the reality is that while we in the west are quietly scoffing at the memory of them, the largest population centre in the world China is QR code obsessed, using them in everything from instant payment signs for buskers to gravestone markings.

So why the huge difference? As a lecturer in Digital Marketing for Google and the Chartered Institute of Marketing, it’s my business to know these things, so around 20 months ago I set out to research the reasons behind this discrepancy, in order to work out  whether QR codes or something similar couldn’t be given a new lease of life here in the west.

What I wasn’t expecting was the voyage of discovery that was to await me, speaking to people from many countries and disciplines, and traversing barriers, solutions and opportunities across technology, sociology, psychology and commerce.

Origin Story