R.R. Donnelley, AirClic to push bar code ads in phone books

Web-enabled bar-code vendor AirClic Inc. and publisher R.R. Donnelley & Sons Co. are teaming up to offer miniaturized bar codes in telephone book ads to allow businesses to direct consumers to more information on the Web.

In a June 20 announcement, Blue Bell, Pa.-based AirClic and Chicago-based Donnelley said they will combine their strengths to help bring interactive capabilities to traditional phone books.

"We think that our technology is a terrific way for directories to come to life," said Matt Golub, an AirClic vice president.

The two companies are discussing the idea with telephone companies, although none have yet signed up to offer AirClic's miniature bar codes to phone book advertisers, Golub said. The bar codes are called "scanlets."

By including the scanlets, which can be made as small as a line of text on a business card, telephone books could be reduced in size and customers could find out more about companies by scanning the bar code in an advertisement. A device made by AirClic would take them automatically to an associated Web page, he said.

"We view that as a very positive and high-potential market," Golub said.

The $50 key fob device, called an AirClicker, can hold up to 100 scanlets in its memory. The user can attach the device to a PC to find Web sites using the information. AirClic is working to equip future cell phones and handheld personal digital assistants with built-in scanners and is creating add-on modules for existing handhelds. Users can also simply type the numbers from a scanlet into their Web browser using their computer or handheld keyboard to be directed to the Web sites.

The alliance between the two companies allows AirClic to take advantage of Donnelley's sales relationships with telephone companies.

Under the deal, Donnelley, which publishes millions of phone books each year, will serve as AirClic's scanlets reseller for the phone book industry.

"We strive to help directory customers make their communications more effective," said Ronald Daly, president of R.R. Donnelley's telecommunications unit, in a statement. "The benefits of this technology and our partnership with AirClic bring us even closer to revolutionizing the way buyers and sellers communicate with each other through directories."

Industry analysts, however, said that several key pieces need to fall into place for the strategy to work. First, the scanning devices need to be in the hands of consumers before companies will want to spend money on the advertising. At the same time, the scanlets have to be used in ads for customers to want to bother using them, they said.

"It's still a chicken-and-egg thing," said Dan O'Brien, an analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. O'Brien said that when a similar device, Dallas-based Digital Convergence Corp.'s CueCat, was released, he was skeptical because it "didn't match how consumers use media." (Computerworld's weekly print publication is among those using the CueCat system.)

The CueCat, which is attached to a PC via a cable, allows users to scan bar codes in books and newspapers to be linked to additional content on the Web as they read. But such use isn't likely if you're engrossed in your reading, said O'Brien.

With phone books, though, users are actually doing research that the scanlets could help them with, he said. "If these scanlet codes enhance that experience and make it easier to find [information], then it has some value," O'Brien said.

Seamus McAteer, an analyst at Jupiter Media Metrix Inc. in New York, said another challenge is convincing advertisers and consumers that they need such a service.

"The value proposition is not yet obvious, and in the consumer market, the value proposition has to be eminently obvious," McAteer said. "I'm not saying they're facing impossible hurdles. It's just more involved than getting those who own Yellow Pages franchises to add bar codes to listings."

Adam Zawel, an analyst at The Yankee Group in Boston, said the scenario is similar to that of the fledgling credit card industry years ago. At that time, he said, credit card companies needed to get cards in the hands of consumers, while at the same time, they had to line up businesses to accept the cards. AirClic and Donnelley "need critical mass to get it all out there," he said.

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