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Marketing in the Digital Age: Everything You Need to Know About QR Codes But Were Afraid To Ask

QR Codes continue to gain popularity and are being incorporated into more and more mobile marketing campaigns.

Here are the basics that will bring you up to speed and some of the finer points that will make you feel confident in discussing QR codes with other marketers.

Here is a baker’s dozen points to know about this exciting marketing and communications tool:

1. The Basics: a QR Code is a 2-dimensional barcode

A QR code is an encoded barcode image resembling a small square crossword puzzle. Unlike a 1-dimensional UPC code, a QR code presents data in 2 directions and can be scanned vertically or horizontally.

2. Advantage: QR Codes can impart a large amount of data

A traditional single-dimension barcode (UPC/EAN) can depict up to 30 numbers while a QR Code can provide up to 7,089 numbers.

The additional data allows a variety of information to be encoded:

  • Text
  • Hyperlink
  • Telephone number (Phone call)
  • SMS/MMS message
  • Email (Send message)
  • Contact entry (vCard or meCard)
  • Calendar entry (vCalendar)

Being able to transfer a hyperlink presents a huge number of possibilities beyond simply loading a web page – it can be used to play a video, download a mobile app, check-in on Foursquare, update a Twitter status, “Like” a Facebook page, display map directions, and more.

3. A QR Code must be scanned with a Smartphone to be decoded

A QR Code reader app is required to decode the encoded data.

4. Versatile: QR Codes can be placed in and on almost anything

Once the QR code image is created, it can be printed or reproduced on nearly any surface and location — newspapers, TV ads, billboards, temporary tattoos, product packaging, clothing labels, cake frosting, and more.

Note: The placement of the QR code must be easy to scan. For example: plastic frames and packaging can reflect light.

5. Growth: QR Code use is exploding!

  • Mobile barcode scanning grew 1,600% in the year 2010.- ScanLife’s 2010 Trend Report (PDF)
  • QR barcode scanning was up 1,200% in the second half of 2010.- Mobio’s Naked Facts Report
  • 22% of the Fortune 50 have already used mobile barcodes.- Burson-Marsteller Report

6. Competition: There’s more than one kind of 2D barcode

Other 2D barcode formats include DataMatrix, ScanLife EZcode, and Microsoft Tag.

There are several key differences in these code formats. ScanLife EZcode and Microsoft Tag are proprietary formats only decodable by their tools, while QR and DataMatrix formats are open standard.

A Google Trends analysis of these 2D barcodes shows “QR code” dominates the field. QR has become a common term used to reference a 2D barcode (2D code, mobile tag, mobile barcode, etc.) even when codes are technically a different format. (Looks like another Beta vs. VHS story in the making!)

7. Tools to generate and read QR Codes are FREE

Tools are available for all major mobile phone handsets.

  • is a comprehensive QR generator providing a variety of content, color, size, and output options.
  • ScanLife’s generator creates their proprietary EZcode as well as QR and DataMatrix formats.
  • Microsoft Tag only generates Tag.

Note: To generate a code on the ScanLife or Microsoft Tag sites, you’ll first need to create an account. (Tag requires providing personal info like birth date, gender, etc.)

Microsoft Tag and ScanLife EZcode can only be decoded by their respective reader apps. Because of the open standard for QR codes, dozens of reader apps are available. (DataMatrix is usually supported on most QR readers.) Some mobile handsets come with a reader app pre-installed.


8. Management tools are available to track scanning

For comprehensive scan tracking, choose a barcode generator that includes tracking analytics.

Some management tools merely track the number of scans while others provide detailed metrics such as demographics, repeat scans, geolocation, and more. Collected analytics depends on the reader app used for scanning, so results may vary.

Management tools are relatively inexpensive or free. Paid plans typically have a free trial with fees based on the number of scans.

A selection of management and tracking tools:

  • Microsoft Tag (Tag)
  • ScanLife (EZcode, QR, DataMatrix, UPC)
  • Tappinn (QR, UPC)
  • Paperlinks (QR)
  • QReateBUZZ (QR)
  • BeQRious (QR)
  • SPARQCode (QR)
  • QReate and Track (QR)

9. Content should provide value

Users have high expectations as to what content they will find. Reward the user with discounts, exclusive content, or useful tips relevant to the code’s context.

Consider scenarios that leverage smartphone features (email, SMS, phone call, video, map, apps, etc.) to save the user time.

For example, including a QR code on a business card that links to a meCard. In contrast, a QR code that links to a website homepage adds limited value.

Note: When linking to a web page, it should be mobile-friendly.

10. Small or complex QR Codes can’t be scanned by smartphones with poor quality cameras

Complex 2D barcodes can be unreadable by some smartphones. In the case of QR codes, more content demands a larger code size. In general, it’s best to minimize data encoded in 2D barcodes. Use a URL-shortener to shrink hyperlinks.

Tip: Always provide a back-up (i.e. hyperlink, SMS text message, etc.) option for users to retrieve info within the code. A back-up also allows non-smartphone users to participate.


11. Offer scanning guidance

The variety of code types, readers, and different terminology is confusing to consumers.

There are a lot of smartphone-rookies that barely know how to use their phone. As long as 2D barcodes are a novelty, always include a brief step-by-step guide with your code.

Tip: For the reader app download, include a URL link or SMS shortcut to expedite the process. This step is imperative when using proprietary Microsoft Tag or ScanLife EZcode formats since only one reader is capable of scanning their codes.

12. 2D Barcodes can be artistically customized

QR codes include an Error Correction Level (ECL) that enables “damaged” codes to be scanned. The error level tolerance (set by the code generator) can be as high as 30%. As a result, creative license can be used to create designer QR codes from a variety of colors as long as there is adequate contrast to read the code.

Microsoft Tag also allows for artistic codes. Their custom tag tool allows users to generate art from codes or even overlay codes on top of photographs.

Tip: Some artistic design is fun; however, it’s important that users easily recognize a scannable code from a distance.

13. Testing is imperative.

Before printing or distributing, scannability must be thoroughly checked. Testing should include:

  • Smartphone cameras (resolution/auto-focus)
  • Reader apps
  • Scan context (i.e. lighting, shadows, surfaces)
  • Scan distance
  • Scan timing

QR Codes are popping up everywhere! Examples include outdoor boards, business cards, tickets, print ads, bumper stickers, product packaging, coupons, t-shirts, brochures and catalogs, postcards and envelopes, in-store signage, on-product stickers or hang-tags, and much more.

Chances are you can take advantage of this technology and incorporate it into a mobile marketing strategy. If you don’t you can be sure your competitors will be.

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