“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. Whatkind 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!)

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