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What the Heck Are QR Codes and Why Should I Care About Them?

“What are these black-and-white, square mazes I see?”

If you’ve ever asked someone (or yourself) this question, then you are not alone.

It seems like new technology is available daily, and one of the newest marketing tools out there is the Quick Response Code (or as a techie calls it: a ‘QR code’). These codes have been popping up around the country on billboards, magazine ads, or even on for-sale signs outside of houses. However, asking someone in the technology field what exactly QR codes are may warrant a twenty-minute-long explanation. Have no fear, though! I’ve done the research and have a few frequently-asked questions and their answers.

1. What exactly is a QR code and what can they look like?

In a nutshell, QR codes are 2-dimensional barcodes that store data in both directions (horizontal and vertical). This differs from a 1-dimensional barcode (UPC/EAN) where data is only stored horizontally. These codes can be scanned at any angle to be decoded, unlike in the supermarket when you have to scan a UPC going from left to right (and appear awkward while you’re trying to scan it just right). The appearance of your code depends upon which company you go with for the design. The QR code is the most popular and pretty much dominates the others.

2. What kind of data do QR codes store?

A typical 1-dimensional barcode stores up to 30 numbers, whereas a 2-dimensional barcode can store up to 7,089 numbers and other data, including:

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

When a hyperlink is stored in the code, there are numerous possibilities available beyond just loading a standard web page. You can play a video, download a mobile app, check-in on Foursquare, update a Twitter status, “Like” a Facebook page, display map directions, and more. QR codes can be used for nearly any business-related function you can think of: logistics, advertising, customer service, etc.

3. Okay, now I know what they are and what’s on them. How do QR codes actually work?

A 2D barcode reader app is required to decode the encoded data. These apps are available on app marketplaces; iTunes, Android Market, etc.

An easy analogy of decoding these codes is much like in Clue Jr. when you’d have to use those red plastic magnifying glass-looking decoder on a picture to see the hidden clues. You can’t see the hidden clue without the decoding device. Except, these QR codes encompass gigabytes…and stuff.

4. Where can these QR codes be placed?

You can find these on nearly anything — newspapers, TV ads, billboards, temporary tattoos, product packaging, clothing labels, cake frosting, and more. This enables you to drive traffic, interaction, and conversion from anywhere your consumers are. It’s important to make sure that the location is easily scan-able. For example, plastic frames and packaging can reflect light (making scanning difficult).

 

5. Is this new technology widely being used?

According to an article from ScanBuy, a leading global provider of mobile barcode solutions:

  • 2D barcode scanning outnumbered 1D (UPC) scans in the first quarter of 2011.
  • Traffic increased over 800% from this time a year ago.
  • “The fact that 2D barcodes overtook 1D barcodes in overall scans is a strong sign that 2D codes, like QR codes, are becoming more commonly adopted by both marketers, publishers and users,” said Mike Wehrs, President and CEO of Scanbuy.

Some major companies are using these codes:

  • Best Buy uses them on in-store price tags for quick access to online reviews about the product.
  • The popular magazine, Golf Digest, uses Microsoft Tag to accompany tips with interactive video giving a visual element that print cannot.
  • Real estate agents have them on “for sale” signs to provide potential buyers with access to virtual tours of the house.

6. I want a QR code of my own! How can I get one?

For a successful campaign you cannot just go in all willy-nilly. You should consult a mobile barcode marketing expert and your web analytics authority before any decisions are made. The technology, trends, and tools available are changing daily and you need someone who is up to date on those changes. They can create a QR code for you that is best for your company.

Final thoughts:

This technology does seem a little space-agey to me, but I do think it has a place in a marketer’s toolbox. It’s bringing the brand directly to the consumer’s cell phone to offer more information about the product or service than a basic print campaign could ever do on its own. Companies that know their target market is technology-savvy are better off using these codes than those who have a broad and diverse market or those who cater to consumers with only basic cell phones. (Hopefully I was able to keep my explanation under twenty minutes!)

Have you seen these codes somewhere? If so, where? Would you use these codes if they become more widespread? If not, what would it take for you to download the app and use it? If you already use them, what do you think?

Still hungry for more information about QR codes? Angie Schottmuller from Search Engine Watch has written an article about the top 14 things marketers need to know about them.

Image Credits:
Jewelry ad with QR code, Steakhouse ad with QR code, Billboard with QR code, For sale sign with QR code
QR code close-up images are from Angie Schottmuller’s article on Search Engine Watch.


Amy Swanson

Amy is one of Quality Logo Products’ content developers and social media coordinators. She is a self-professed newspaper nerd and thoroughly enjoys reading business and financial news and having impromptu discussions about it. Oh yeah, she’s “one of those” people! A true Midwestern girl by nature, she loves riding her bike, photography, and the Chicago Cubs. You can connect with Amy on

Comments

  1. Mandy Kilinskis

    I love QR codes. I feel like I’m from the future when I scan them with my iPhone. I like that just scanning one code takes me right to webpage where I can get more information. I see these things everywhere – even on my ice cream cartons. You’re absolutely right: for businesses directing their products at tech-savvy consumers, QR codes are a must!!

    Great first post and welcome to the blog, Amy!

    • amy

      Awww, thanks Mandy :) I must admit I haven’t ever used decoded one of these, but after writing this blog I really want to try them out. Is there a particular decoder app you like?

      • Mandy Kilinskis

        I just downloaded the generic ‘AT&T Code Scanner.’ It’s free on the app store and I imagine that there are versions for all AT&T smartphones!

  2. JPorretto

    Oh thank goodness someone finally explained in a clear concise manner what these things are and what their purpose is. I’ve only had a vague idea of what they do forever now…

    Thanks Amy! Welcome to the squad!

    P.S. I love when people say “all willy-nilly”

    • amy

      I was in the same boat with you Jeff, I basically just knew of them and nothing about them! It’s also a special breed of people that say “willy-nilly” ;)

  3. Jana Quinn

    Great overview, Amy! I’ve seen the QR codes, but haven’t yet tried it out. I just got a smartphone a few months ago, and I’d like to give it a shot. What are some examples of apps that can decode them?

    Also, how do you make them? I don’t know what a “mobile barcode marketing expert” or “web analytics authority” is let alone how to find one. Do you develop them yourself or is it something you’d hire a freelancer or a firm to do?

    Thanks for getting the wheels turning!

    • Vern-Matic

      On my Droid phone I use QR Droid, lots of options available once you scan the barcode. I know they make fonts for the 1D barcode I can only imagine that they make them for the 2D barcodes.

    • amy

      Thanks Jana! It seems like every company is jumping on board with these QR decoders; if you visit this website;
      http://www.qrstuff.com/qr_phone_software.html
      it gives a list of which apps work on what phones.

      As for creating a QR code, you can make them yourself at websites like; http://kimtag.com/
      (thank god for google ;) )

  4. Jill Tooley

    Thank you for explaining these in detail, Amy! I only recently learned about QR codes and now I see them literally EVERYWHERE I go. They’re on flyers, in email newsletters and signatures, signs, on the back ends of semi trucks…we can’t escape them. Even my local library started using them! I have an older version of the iPhone so I’m not sure if it would support scanning these, but it’s on my list of things to check out for sure.

    Our friends over at Imagery Group have a pretty sweet guide on QR codes as well!

    • amy

      It’s truly amazing where these codes are showing up! I’d like to see someone driving and trying to scan the back of the semi truck with their smart phone. But from a safe distance away and not right in the next lane hahaha.

      On the back of the newspaper on the Weather page is a QR code, which I want to scan and find out what’s lurking there… updated weather? an advertisement? a link to the newspaper’s website? The possibilities are endless, with only 1 way to find out!

    • Juliette

      Aw, Jill! You’re making us blush saying such awesome things about our QR code guide like that!

  5. Jenna

    This is a great overview of a new technology that I didn’t quite understand! When I was working at Old Navy, they had a promotion around Easter using QR codes. There were “Easter eggs” hidden around the store that customers could scan to reveal a coupon. It was pretty cool, even though at the time I didn’t really understand how it worked.

    How do the QR codes on billboards work? Can someone scan them on their phone from their car while driving by? This seems like a hazard…

    Awesome first post, Amy! :D

    • amy

      That’s a cool idea with Old Navy using them for an in-store promotion. Did you notice a lot of people scanning them?

      The billboards that I’ve seen that have them are in an urban environment where you could walk past them and scan them. You’re completely right in seeing the hazard of driving and scanning hahaha.

      • Jenna

        There were tons of people using them! One mom just sent her daughter around the store with her smartphone to try and find the best coupon. And they were relatively simple at the register, too. The phone would just pull up a code for the coupon, and the cashiers just had to type in the code straight from the phone. It’s definitely a cool concept!

        • amy

          That’s awesome that they were easy for the cashiers to use too! How many times have you heard of a company using some new technology, but not knowing exactly how to use it? I’ve signed up for some text alerts from stores where they’ll send a coupon code, but then if the code doesn’t work I’m out of luck :(

  6. Joseph Giorgi

    “A typical 1-dimensional barcode stores up to 30 numbers, whereas a 2-dimensional barcode can store up to 7,089 numbers and other data…”

    Jesus! That’s a major leap forward if you ask me!

    Thanks so much for explaining how these codes work in such detail, Amy. I don’t own a smartphone, but I always try to keep track of the latest happenings in mobile media, and QR codes represent one of today’s biggest developments in the mobile space. When I eventually hop aboard the smartphone wagon, I’ll gladly take advantage of what QR codes have to offer. Until then, I’ll remain jealous of all the cool, techie fun that everyone but me is having. :’(

    This is seriously thought-provoking stuff. Congrats on an excellent blogging debut! :)

    • amy

      Thanks Joe! I found it really interesting that data is stored both vertically and horizontally on the codes, which must make it possible for all that additional data to be stored.

  7. Amanda

    Welcome to the blog, Amy! =) And nice first post–this was very imformative to me! I had an idea what QR codes were, but this explains it very well, and it look less than 20 minutes! Well done.

    I don’t have a smart phone, and probably won’t for quite a while….I’m waiting until they’re cheaper because I don’t feel the real need to have one. But if I can get one for the price I pay for my cell phone now, I might. And at that point, I’ll be excited to scan some QR codes, just for the heck of it.

    • amy

      I’m glad I made it under 20 minutes, phew! ;)

      My phone has internet (barely), but isn’t actually a smartphone so I’ll be waiting right along side of you until they’re more affordable. I think this technology sounds really interesting and I look forward to being able to scan away too :)

  8. Scooby DOO!

    AMY- great first post, thanks for the cool information! It’s funny, 25 years ago there was a race to the standard video tape (betamax vs. VHS ) and now we have a race to the standard barcode; what’s next?!

    • amy

      Thanks! I hadn’t thought of the betamax vs. VHS race in comparison to these codes, but you’re totally right! It’ll be interesting to see which one becomes obsolete.

  9. Sally Johnson

    Great Blog!!! I’ve always seen these little code things and now I know how they work. Thanks for the great explanation. I really got it when you compared them to the red decoder in the old Clue games :)

    • amy

      I’m glad that made it easier to understand! As I was researching I was trying to compare this to something people would have heard of before and make it not sound so ‘techie’. Which, was easier said than done ;)

  10. Peemo

    Nice one, first timer!

    I’ve seen the great things QR codes can do for musicians pushing out their music. QRs on banners, postcards, CDs, etc. can be used for any additional info from promoting shows to additional downloadable content.

    • amy

      Wow, that’s truly a great idea! Everyone always has their phones with them, so why not capture their attention right away? The concerts I’ve gone to haven’t had these yet, but I’m looking forward to going to future shows and seeing them :)

  11. LK

    Great first blog! When I first downloaded the barcode/QR scanner app on my phone I went scanning crazy! Anything with a QR code I was scanning to see where it would take me. Nowadays, I’ve scaled down and only scan the more useful things. Some neat ones I’ve came across are scanning the code to enter a contest, scanning to get more info on a product, and my fave… scanning the code and having the grocery list for a recipe download onto your phone! :)

    The possibilities are endless!

    • amy

      I love that companies are using these for useful tasks, not just to watch a commerical of it. Coupons, recipes, music, contests?! I could totally see how you went scanner crazy!

  12. Kyle

    This was a great post! I’ve seen QR codes before, but didn’t know too much about them. After reading this I have to admit I’m pretty interested in them. Too bad I don’t have a smartphone yet… It’s probably only a matter of time before I finally cave in.

    • amy

      Welcome to the club of smartphone-less ;) I think not having a smartphone actually puts you in the majority here hahaha, a lot more people than I realized don’t have them.

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