Will Clear Channel’s QR Billboard Strategy Scan?

Clear Channel Outdoor has finally figured out the future of the billboard business: QR Codes. Remember those little pixelated squares that were supposed to revolutionize everything from supply-chain management to cemeteries?

Clear Channel, which has almost 700,000 billboards and signs around the world, plans to put 75,000 scannable tags on ads at sites that feature “heavy footfall and long dwell-time”—namely airports, shopping malls, bus stops, and the like. In addition to QR (short for Quick Response) Codes, some of the billboards will have SMS capabilities to text passersby or use near-field communication, which transmits information to nearby devices.

Clear Channel says the initiative—dubbed Connect—was informed by consumers tuning in to ads on social media and other content platforms. “Connect presents the opportunity to target consumers on-the-go, when they are receptive to messages and can be delighted by timely, relevant and tailored invitations to engage,” Suzanne Grimes, chief operating officer of Clear Channel Outdoor, said in a statement.

Pulling up an amusing YouTube ad for a quick break at work is one thing, but people don’t typically look for those kinds of distractions in places like airports. Many travelers are too busy playing Candy Crush, corralling children, or hate-tweeting an airline to even notice the ads around them.

Therein lies the problem for Clear Channel: The average pedestrian is more distracted than ever. The company really doesn’t have a choice but to try to convince advertisers that it’s found a way to get people to notice its signs.

The QR Codes do lend themselves to one thing every marketer loves: data. Clear Channel will be able to tell clients how many people scanned their ad, as well as when and if they took the next step of buying something via their phone or mobile device.

The results could be underwhelming if prior QR forays are an accurate indicator. The giant ad agencies that buy space for big national consumer brands cooled on QR Codes two years ago. Critics point to three major drawbacks: They require a user to download a dedicated app; they don’t function well in places without cell phone service—like, say, a metro station; and they aren’t particularly pleasing to look at.

Digiday, a New York trade publisher covering digital marketing, said in December that QR Codes’ days are over, and even likened them to “robot vomit.”

Clear Channel could prove the haters wrong and produce compelling enough content to make the venture work. Ironically, the old-fashioned, low-tech roadside billboard business is doing pretty well. Drivers still have to keep their eyes on (or near) the road—at least for now. And because of tighter regulations, it’s increasingly difficult to erect a billboard, giving existing placards some pricing power.

Digital real estate is valuable, too, but getting people there is a challenge.

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